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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Telecom vendors should not couple WebRTC too closely to their IMS strategy

A regular theme at WebRTC conferences, especially in the telco/service provider tracks, is "To IMS or not to IMS". There's usually a quick discussion of 3GPP standards progress, a presentation from a vendor or two, and an operator core-networks specialist talking about a trial they've run in a lab. There might also be an API management company, trying to pitch their tools as a way to expose IMS-anchored capabilities to developers.

All of which is fair enough. I expect that some of the telco use-cases for WebRTC will (eventually) involve IMS in some regards. An obvious one is extending VoLTE to non-LTE devices, as a form of "web-phone" rather than the dedicated softphone applications of the past. We might also see some variants on hosted PBXs, the long-mythical telco video-calling services, or some pointless RCS APIs that none of the roughly 17 active Joyn subscribers will ever use.

But my normal advice to operators - whether on conference panels, during private workshops or in my published research - is to diversify WebRTC across multiple units and teams. While the core networks/telephony team battles to add it to IMS, the enterprise unit should be looking at it in a completely separate way, as should the digital/OTT team, the IPTV arm, the developer-platforms initiative, the M2M unit, the internal CRM project, vertical-specific partnerships, wholesale, arms-length MVNOs and all the various local OpCos.

In other words, IMS-related work should only make up maybe 20-30% of a typical operator's overall WebRTC investment, focus and resources. It's a part of the story, but a slow-moving and mostly unsexy part. It might be generating a few extra features, but nothing to move the needle. The usual mantra among the IMS/WebRTC contingent is "it's just another access", which pretty much defines the limits of their vision and ambition straight away.

But there's another dimension here, on the supplier side. Certain vendors only ever reference WebRTC in the context of their IMS solutions and products. Again, it's "just another access", with a fairly unsubtle corollary message of "it's just another function of our IMS, so please buy it".

I'll call out Huawei in particular here. I don't think I've seen anything about WebRTC from the big Chinese vendor that didn't have a IMS slant - even its otherwise cool M2M Telemedicine demo, which inexplicably tries to kludge in an RCS angle. This may be reflective of the Chinese market as a whole - despite heavy presence of companies in the standards bodies, I'm not aware of many actual consumer-web or enterprise-centric WebRTC deployments and apps coming from China.

Alcatel-Lucent is almost as polarised, although sometimes with a veneer of API glue between the two. It even has a white paper distinguishing IMS-based options from "islands", which is set up on a straw-man premise asking whether WebRTC could ever replace the PSTN and demanding that "action must be taken to incorporate IMS with WebRTC immediately". The paper has all sorts of extremely-questionable assertions, including "People must be universally reachable though voice, video [!] & messaging". Written by George Orwell's great nephew, I assume, and possibly worthy of a full dissection in another post. (Full unintentional-irony marks to ALU for the download web-form asking for Twitter handle rather than phone number, though). 

Mavenir seems to be solidly planted at the IMS-only end of the WebRTC spectrum too, although that is unsurprising given its focus as a company. NSN is pretty much "missing in action" with regard to WebRTC, but the only recent mention on its website is in a reference to an IMS session controller.

(Semantic sidenote: at the moment, IMS is merely an archipelago of small islands connected by wooden canoes, compared to the Australias & Greenlands of Internet apps)

Conversely, while Ericsson is obviously an IMS believer, it seems willing to go off-message on WebRTC - here's a prototype it's been playing with on Google Glass, complete with Node.JS for signalling. Cisco has a big enterprise presence, so it's no surprise to see it being at least as enthusiastic about WebRTC in an UC and conferencing context as it is in the telco domain. 

GenBand, Oracle, Sonus and Dialogic are also fairly agnostic, looking at both IMS and non-IMS use cases (and varying their messages depending on the audience and event concerned). Metaswitch targets both IMS and non-IMS service providers with its WebRTC gateway capability, as well as integrating into its open-source NFV-IMS Clearwater platform. Acision seems to be looking at both telco and enterprise domains with WebRTC, and while some of the messaging angles derive from its SMS heritage with a faint whiff of RCS, it's all quite well-buried under a cloak of "interoperability where wanted".

I'll do a deeper analysis of this (plus various other vendors) in an upcoming update of my WebRTC report, but it's really jumped out at me in the last few weeks.

The key point here is that vendors - even if they are IMS "true believers" need to follow in the footsteps of the telcos. WebRTC activity and product development MUST NOT be "just another bit of the IMS product", but must be democratised across the entire organisation and its affiliates. All the vendors have big integration, support and professional services teams - these should be using WebRTC as part of their internal and client communications. The OSS/BSS functions should pragmatically employ it. 

The R&D teams should be using video and screen-sharing. Vendors' new product teams should be looking at opportunities around cloud platforms & API management tools for telcos that wish to emulate Telefonica Tokbox. They should be thinking about re-entering the enterprise market, even if they sold off their old PBX businesses. Interactive TV systems, set-top boxes, M2M infrastructure and vertical/government solutions should embrace WebRTC where relevant. None of these should be beholden to IMS integration as a core strategy, even if it intersects at relevant points.

Maybe a higher fraction of WebRTC efforts - say 30-40% of total investment & resources - should be based around IMS integration for some vendors. But it is exceptionally risky to put all WebRTC eggs in a fragile, slow and unambitious WebRTC basket.

Ultimately, IMS needs WebRTC more than WebRTC needs IMS, both for service providers and the web at large. If vendors like ALU & Huawei continue to deliberately ignore (or worse, denigrate) non-IMS use cases for WebRTC, they are disenfranchising themselves from a huge chunk of the future communications industry.

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