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Friday, February 27, 2015

Evangelising WebRTC: Conferences, Hackathons and more

Last week I was asked to help judge a WebRTC hackathon run by Acision, for apps based on its Forge cloud platform. (It was called Forgeathon, and run by a company called BeMyApp. Apparently, I am now a "Celebrity Guest Judge", which I shall be adding to my business cards and LinkedIn profile in due course).

It was won by an app called "Yoroshiku" which was a fun concept of Tinder-style "swiping", but to find language-exchange partners rather than dates, find out if they're online, message them, and then set up a video-call inside the app, speaking Japanese or Welsh or Klingon to each other as appropriate. It is a great example of contextual communications - voice/video which is both inside a given context (app/website) and which is given extra function and meaning by that context (eg language-matching). 

Yoroshiku is precisely the sort of use-case that WebRTC is designed for - and the fact here it's bundled into an iOS app, rather than a browser, also points to the role of cloud-based APIs and the growing importance of mobile use-cases. I also liked the 2nd-placed entry Codemate which was aimed at collaborative coding between developers, and the 3rd-place one, Trippr, about recommending travel destinations. All interesting examples of what's possible - and written in 6 weeks by individuals or small teams.

I'll be writing a lot more about contextual communications in coming posts, but there's an important caveat about its evolution: most developers spending their lives in a given "context"- language tuition, human resources, travel agency, games, photography, real-estate or whatever - don't know much about communications. Especially if they're solo app developers, they will never have heard of SIP, video codecs, NAT-traversal, latency/jitter, echo cancellation or any of those other things that comms people talk about every day.

Not only that, but many of them haven't even thought of the possibilities of using contextual communications, just as many haven't thought about other new APIs or technologies. If you're developing something for language students - or lawyers or oilfield engineers - you don't necessarily have a checklist of "cool stuff that might help" - whether that's realtime voice/video, or other HTML5 APIs for 3D Graphics or whatever (did you know there was a W3C Vibration API? No, me neither). Then there's a ton of non-web stuff clamouring for attention  wearables, drones, 3D printing and so on.

Basically, there's a never-ending list of cool stuff (and APIs) for developers to exploit to add coolness and functionality to their apps and websites.

So WebRTC has to cut through all the other worthy possible additions and get to the top of the developers' priority list of things to implement. The simplest cases will be those where they already know they want to add realtime comms, and they go looking for the best/easiest way to do it. But in others, it's an "unknown unknown" - they don't even recognise the possibilities from using voice or video, and haven't heard of WebRTC - it's not even on their radar.

This is where evangelism comes in. I'm seeing a steady increase in outreach by the WebRTC industry to new constituencies - especially general web and app developers, and those focused on particular industry sectors. Hackathons are good examples, as are the various Meetups (including the one in Barcelona next week), and presentations at general web conferences and vertical-industry events. But more is needed, to raise awareness and understanding.

The problem is that most such developers won't be buying WebRTC infrastructure - gateways, SBCs and the like. They will mostly be using open-source components, or cloud PaaS offers like Forge (or Tokbox, Kandy, Respoke, Twilio, Temasys, SightCall, AT&T, appear.in and a long list of others). And those players - apart from an obvious few - don't have much marketing clout.

There are many more WebRTC marketing dollars aimed at people "
adding web to their existing comms" than there are for those "adding comms to their existing web". There's also a wariness among some vendors about over-promoting the PaaS platform concept, as it may reduce their addressable market for direct sales to individual customers - not least because some of those providers "roll their own" components rather than use off-the-shelf gateways or SBCs or media-servers.

What I'd like to see - as well as more direct initiatives like Acision's here - is the formation of some sort of coordinated WebRTC Forum body, which exists to promote the technology to a wider audience of developers, rather than define standards internally. Such a forum could host demos & showcases, run competitions, write white papers, field speakers or workshops at events, align web resources (maybe even based on WebRTC...) and so on. There's plenty of these types of things for other bits of the Internet and communication industry, but nothing specific to WebRTC. (One exception may be Google's own efforts on its G+ forum, run by the Chrome team).

I'll be at the Barcelona Meetup next week, and also Enterprise Connect in Orlando. I'd be keen to have some discussions about how a WebRTC Forum might get started, funded, sign up members and so on. I'm probably not the right person to coordinate at, but I'm happy to help work to bring together interested parties.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping an eye on other WebRTC hackathons and events, and see if any examples of best practice jump out, as well as interesting case-studies and usage ideas. And if you're looking for a judge, advisor, analyst or event facilitator, please get in touch.
Ideally, not in Hungarian, as I swiped left on that.

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