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InfoQ Homepage Articles WebRTC - Democratization of Telecom Enabling New App Experiences

WebRTC - Democratization of Telecom Enabling New App Experiences


The emergence of the open internet and the genesis of modern computing exemplify the capability of open technology to drive innovation and growth. The creation of HTTP as a protocol for computers to request and receive data from servers was perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time. Unfortunately, asynchronous data flows and real-time communications was not in the minds of these innovators as this function was handled by telecommunications providers. For the most part, telecommunications providers have controlled the delivery of voice, video and messaging but to date new web standards are beginning to disrupt this traditional model.

With the emergence of the WebRTC API standard, telecom’s control of communications is changing. This standard and its growing ecosystem enable developers without any experience in complex telecommunications technology and protocols to easily integrate real-time comms into their applications.

This ease of access will spawn new innovative use cases that will change the way that we communicate, exchange information and interact.

Please also consider to take part in Smiths Point Analytics' survey on WebRTC usage.

What is WebRTC

WebRTC is an open source project that enables real-time communications within a browser without plug-ins. The initiative is supported by Google, Opera, and Mozilla and enables developers to integrate voice, messaging, and video in the browser with just JavaScript API’s and HTML5.

Major components of WebRTC include:

  • getUserMedia - allows a web browser to access the device camera and microphone
  • peerConnection - sets up audio/video calls
  • dataChannels - allows browsers to share data via peer-to-peer

Enabling developers to integrate real-time communications into their applications using simple web technologies makes conversations much more flexible. The ability to initiate and receive real-time communications from within a mobile app or web browser, enables users to interact with a greater context resulting in more efficient information exchange. WebRTC supports a much more dynamic ecosystem where voice and video communications are decoupled from the existing protocols leading to new experiences. Click to call buttons on websites or apps such as Amazon’s mayday button is amongst the first more visible uses of this technology.

While WebRTC provides some standardization to facilitate innovation, some issues still need to be worked out. Lack of standardized signaling and universal browser support are two big issues that need to be resolved. In an effort to avoid stalling consensus around the standard, the WebRTC consortium purposely left out a signaling standard to steer clear of conflict. Consequently vendors are using a variety of protocols including SIP, WebSockets, and HTTP. Competing API and codec standards are also hindering universal support for WebRTC across all browsers, adding another barrier to widespread adoption.

Tools and service providers

While the standard evolves, a number of vendors have entered the market to patch holes in the ecosystem and help mobile and web developers integrate communications into their projects. These vendors provide REST APIs to integrate communications services as well as SDKs to support mobile implementations. Beyond connectivity, these vendors are also able to provide developers easy access to telecommunications based services in the cloud. The chart below shows the percentage of survey respondents using each service in their apps.

Telephony Features Survey Respondents Have Integrated Into Their Apps

Source: Smith’s Point Analytics

This data was taken from our (Smiths Point Analytics) survey of developers integrating communications into their applications and websites. Participate in our 2015 survey by clicking here. Check back next quarter for analysis of the results.

The market for Telecom API providers or Cloud RTC services is growing rapidly and attracting a wide variety of competitors. While all providers are bringing to market connectivity and communications features and services, vendors are differentiating on either interconnectivity and call quality or flexibility of features and ease of implementation. Companies such as Plivo, Twilio, Nexmo, Tropo and Telestax are racing to build connections with operators while companies such as Genband, Acision, Temasys, Voximplant and Bit6 are focusing on serving developers with powerful SDKs and flexible services.

Use Cases

As new tools and technologies in the cloud communications space gain traction, developers are not waiting for WebRTC to be finalized but are moving forward with implementations. Today developers are picking off the obvious use cases that represent the low hanging fruit but real innovation remains on the horizon.

Low hanging fruit

Customer relationship management and collaboration are the first applications leveraging cloud communications. The ability for sales and services reps to simply initiate a call from within a CRM application improves productivity. WebRTC also makes it easier for client information and communications to be combined. Incoming calls can be matched with customer info automatically presenting account details and history. If the client initiates a call from a site where they have already been authenticated, reps can skip the annoying process of re-authenticating and improve the customer experience. The peer-to-peer sharing technology standardized by the WebRTC specification also supports the ability for reps to share their screens with customers. This can be done without the customer leaving the browser or downloading additional software.

While screen sharing has been possible for years, WebRTC makes this experience much more accessible to developers and consumers. Developers can create these experiences with just web development expertise. Understanding telecom technologies and protocols is not required to set up a call or manage the data flow. This enables developers to create customized experiences that fit their requirements and businesses. The financial services vertical is one that is quickly implementing cloud communications as their products are very sophisticated and customer relationships are built on trust. Trust is fostered through closer communications and better understanding of products and requirements making the financial service industry a great early adopter of the technology.

The ability to integrate multiple data streams and share screens also has great application in collaboration suites. Combining these capabilities across any device enables more efficient decision making across disparate teams leading to better outcomes.

Breaching the boundaries of traditional communications

While WebRTC can provide value in the use cases of today, the flexibility of the standard and cloud communications creates a launch pad for experiences that take communications to the next level. The emergence of the cloud computing paradigm is disconnecting data and identity from individual devices making personalized information available anywhere from any device. Communications is following suite and seamless communications in any form will be available anywhere any time in any mode. Traditional boundaries of what constitutes a phone call will melt away.

Today, communication is typically initiated and completed from a single device. With the proliferation of connected devices, various computers are available to support voice, video, and messaging but each has its own advantages and unique characteristics. Users are always reachable via mobile phone, in the car voice is the only safe way for a driver to communicate, and more visual interactions are more conducive to a tablet. As users move across different environments the ability to maintain a connection between parties that can seamlessly migrate from a phone to a car to a tablet supports a continuity that can drive greater productivity and engagement. The ability to move communications across these devices enables users to take advantage of their unique characteristics.

Greater flexibility also blurs the segregation between different modes of communication. As conversations evolve, requirements change. With WebRTC, text chats can be turned into a call or video chat with a texted URL. Calls to call centers can also be more efficient by merging multiple forms of communications. Interactions initiated with a phone call can be linked to a site or app that enables a user to navigate an interactive voice response tree using an app, negating the need to listen to each option in the menu.

Experiences of Tomorrow

One of the real challenges of WebRTC and cloud communications finding main stream adoption is developers’ preconceived notion of what communications constitute. The typical telephony experience has not changed significantly since it was invented. To initiate a call one user dials a phone number and the recipient answers. Democratized communications will enable a new wave of innovation that will incrementally move the telephony experience away from our current idea of what is possible.

One potential innovative use cases might involve a situation where a field service technician cannot solve a problem with a piece of equipment they are servicing. With an app that has integrated communications, the technician can initiate a session with a more experienced technician where the two communicate via voice while video of the faulty equipment is shared. By layering augmented reality into the experience the teacher can illustrate the appropriate course of action using the problematic equipment as a backdrop.

Source: Vipaar

Once completed, the voice, video and AR stream can be saved for future reference to support other technicians and product designers. This type of experience could also be very valuable in the healthcare industry in an effort to drive down rising costs.

These kinds of app will help us reimaging how information is exchanged in real time. We don’t expect an explosion of apps with revolutionary experiences tomorrow but incremental innovations will move the industry toward something in the future that may be hard to fathom today. Openness drives creativity and innovation that builds on itself.

Smiths Point Analytics 2015 survey

Vendors are working hard to bring to market tools and services that make it easier for developers to integrate communications into their apps. In an effort to provide insight to these vendors on features and capabilities required by developers we are asking for your input.

Take our developer survey and help drive the ecosystem forward and set the stage for next generation experiences. We will publish the results in a follow up article so you have a better understanding of how your peers feel about this technology. All survey respondents will also be entered into a drawing to win one of the much anticipated Apple iWatch.

Enter Survey here

About the Author

Peter Crocker is the founder and principal analyst at Smith’s Point Analytics, a full service market research and consulting firm focused on the mobile software and cloud services ecosystem. Offerings include thought leadership papers, custom consulting and syndicated research reports.

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