How WebRTC will upend the mobile world

A new technology, WebRTC, also known as RTCWEB (Real Time Communication on the Web), is poised to send a virtual tsunami through the mobile communications industry, likely changing the landscape for a good long time. The idea is to put some of the voice and video services technology right inside the browser or device itself. That way, when a developer wants to enable voice or video calling, they can use the code that is already there. The only way to do that on a mobile device today is with a stand alone app, which is not easy.

And I should know. As a serial Voice-over-IP entrepreneur and the cofounder of Hookflash, I’ve worked with teams that have built plenty of voice and video apps from scratch. WebRTC could take a great deal of heavy lifting out of the equation for developers and end up becoming the common denominator in the new mobile network.

In the wake of this proposed standard, many traditional VoIP  service providers will wither and die. Mobile operators who continue to behave the way they have been will experience a grand exodus as users flee to new innovative providers. Traditional landline sales (phone lines) and traditional mobile voice usage will slow to a halt, and the phone network you know today will be gone for good.

Imagine a world where no matter what we use or where we are we could all communicate via video, hassle-free, for free — native video from Apple devices to Samsung devices, from business phones to the TV in your living room, from your car to your home to a beach in Hawaii. That is what WebRTC can do for us.

When it comes to mobile, Google and Apple own it. If these two giants got on the same page with WebRTC and convinced the mobile operators to play along, consumers everywhere would rejoice.

Google could see some big payoffs via WebRTC. Managing end-user software deployments, such as Google Hangouts, which range in the millions of users equates to real complexity. By reducing or eliminating the need for end-user software, WebRTC will help in a very material and measurable way.

Device manufacturers will also be in a better position. Since Google is a major stakeholder in the WebRTC movement and Google owns Android, we can surmise that Android-powered devices could start shipping with data plans and service offerings with free voice and video. Those services should be interoperable with other services that spring up using the WebRTC open standard. This would surely help Google’s handset and tablet sales.

Apple has been relatively quiet on the WebRTC front, which is somewhat disconcerting. Without Apple’s buy-in, approximately half of the mobile market is inaccessible. Which means that if developers were relying on WebRTC to deliver a voice or video service, they could only deliver service to half of the users that they could if they were to build a native application for both Android and iOS. This would be a major blow to the WebRTC community. On the other hand, Apple could easily take the openly available technology (as could anyone else) and drop it into a new version of iOS at any time, surprising everyone. Everything considered, I would say that  Apple will play along, albeit quite a bit later than everyone else.

In terms of user adoption, Skype is the standard on the Internet. So why won’t Skype dominate on mobile? Skype is an app on a device. It will never win the mobile battle if it’s just a third party application. Even if Microsoft embeds Skype deep in the fabric of its own mobile devices, that only represents a small portion of the market. And I don’t see Apple and Google embedding Skype as the native form of communication anytime soon.

As it turns out, Microsoft and Skype have recently joined the discussion in earnest, creating a bit of a kerfuffle due to their late arrival, which could cost us a six-month delay or more in getting this new proposal approved in the respective standard bodies. At any rate, it’s good to see them getting involved. I just wish it had happened ten months earlier.

The WebRTC open standards project has been in progress for more than a year now, and there are plenty of early demos of WebRTC already. I think we will likely see some production deployments of WebRTC in the next six to nine months, when Firefox and Chrome for Android support it in a production version of their browsers. And Google seems primed to deploy it to their large user base on Hangouts.

As for the rest of us, we will all keep close watch while building our own technology. With some luck and careful coordination, we will all arrive at the same time. It’s a guess, but I expect things will get really interesting near the end of 2013.

Erik Lagerway is a cofounder at Hookflash, creators of Open Peer, a new peer-to-peer network specification, built to enable global P2P communications and services. Open Peer powers the Hookflash mobile apps, enabling free voice and video chat on LinkedIn. You can follow him on twitter at @elagerway and @hookflash.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tsahi Levent-Levi.