Will WebRTC Defeat Skype? Technology does not a product make

Dec 12, 2013
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In a time when the average lifespan of a tweet can be calculated in seconds and the fight for eyeballs is constant between publishers, it is becoming increasingly common to read outrageous statements to capture one’s attention and wrongly put the spotlight on otherwise promising technologies. HTML5 has got its share of over-the-top statements lately though, thankfully, as the technology is starting to mature and people realize its capabilities’ boundaries the chatter has lowered a bit and there was a need for a new kid in town that could generate some excitement. Enter WebRTC.

WebRTC is a fantastic technology with a tremendous outlook. The technology was open sourced by Google in 2011 and enables peer-to-peer, real time, communications. Voice and video are often seen as the next frontier of web-development and WebRTC was designed to address these needs. Using WebRTC, companies can build voice, video, and data interchange applications into standard compliant Web browsers. An important benefit of WebRTC is that because the technology is tied to the browser, a user would not have to download anything to use a communication tool using the standard. This would spell the end to bad communication plugins, frustrating updates, and compatibility nightmares.

From this angle, the range of applications that can be built using WebRTC are far-and-wide. At the moment most products using WebRTC are focusing around telephony and/or web conferencing. Those can be considered the low hanging fruit and the competition is sure to turn fierce between vendors who want to go head-to-head against the major players in the industry.
Games are sure to benefit from WebRTC as well, enabling better, and simpler to deploy voice and audio interaction between the players. Finally, an area that stands to benefit tremendously from the rise of the technology is accessibility. With better access to the user’s video camera, it is simple to foresee applications leveraging sensors and motion to help shape solutions that promote accessibility and facilitates interaction with other systems.

However, it is important to see that WebRTC is merely a technology, a conduit. It will not spell the end of any existing product. A tool such as Skype (or facetime, go2meeting…) does a lot more than just enable peer-to-peer voice and video. While people can be excited about the technology, the products also have to deliver and provide a better value to the end-users. Many companies, as they launch their product, forget that for a customer, the emotional cost of switching solutions is often much higher than the economic one.

Of course, there are some limitations to WebRTC. The most obvious one is the browser support. Internet Explorer is lagging behind in terms of adoption and, more importantly, very few mobile-based browsers support WebRTC at the moment. This should hopefully change in 2014 and we may be able to see a rise in mobile ready WebRTC based products.
The one interesting development will be to see how, and if, Apple decides to fully embrace the standard since the products that can be built using WebRTC would be in direct competition with Facetime.

WebRTC’s solutions also need servers to coordinate the conversations and put the users in touch. This is where most of the complexity in the technology is. It would not be surprising to see telecom vendors (be it a historical one like Orange or a virtual one like Twilio) try and position themselves as the service brokers that applications can use when looking at connecting users.

An interesting issue, related to adoption at the enterprise level, will be around how companies address certain security concerns. At the moment, it is simple to foresee that companies may be wary of letting fully encrypted WebRTC media cross into their networks until technologies assure such streams pose little threat.

Yes, WebRTC will be a game changer and companies, especially at the enterprise level, should take a strong long at it. However, and not to rain on certain bloggers and journalists’ parade, WebRTC is far from spelling doom on Skype however, it will lead the way to new applications that will, indeed, challenge the current behemoth.