Feb 042013

You are in Barcelona and I am in Atlanta.   We are checking out some photos together via a photo sharing app.

Avalanche Lake photo


Avalanche Trail via WebRTC 

While showing your photos, you gesture on your Droid to instantly connect audio between us, telling me that the photo we are looking at is from an unbelievable hike you took at Glacier National Park on the Avalanche Lake trail at Logan’s Point.  You tell me to hike it in June when the beargrass is blooming, and, when the trail hits the lake, to walk another quarter of a mile south along the perimeter of the lake to find a great swimming area (and to jump in, no matter how cold the water).

There are a few different trails from the swimming area – one that is stunning and one that you found overrated – but you can’t remember which is which.  We see in the photo app that one of the guides is online so we ask her if she can join us to answer an Avalanche Lake question.  She decides to connect via video, helps us figure out which trail is which, and demonstrates how her external framed backpack will work better than the internal frame one I was going to buy.

I save the entire session with one click so that I can swipe through to the audio and video when I go through these photos again.  I can also gesture to pull in smart links – links based on the keywords in the audio of our conversation, the geotags in the photos we reviewed, information from my social graph and preferences determined by my usage patterns (e.g. show me relevant Lonely Planet links but not TripAdvisor links).  A final click books the helpful guide.

Avalanche trail via today’s disjointed communications paradigm

You post a bunch of your Glacier photos on the web one night and I happen to see them.  I call you a week later but get your voice mail.  We eventually connect and you tell you about the Avalanche hike.  I think I remember the photo you are talking about, but I’m not even sure if I saw it on Twitter, MMS or email.  I don’t have time to check because you called me right before a meeting.  The other trail, pack recommendations and the good guide?  No chance.

WebRTC – business drivers

Our photo sharing experience is just example of how WebRTC will change the communications world.  There are many more WebRTC benefits in the enterprise and SMB worlds, and far more potential benefits that we haven’t yet imagined – magic mixes of functionality, simplicity, cost and quality.  See @disruptivedean, @aswath, and @tsahil for more thoughts on the development of WebRTC.

However, the WebRTC-enabled benefits aren’t enough by themselves.  WebRTC needs business drivers and business models to enable the magic mix of benefits for the early adopters, get us towards critical mass and profitably expand to the majority.

Business drivers for the new providers

In geeky telco circles, we discuss how hard it is for telcos to move from undesirable transactions like phone calls to the natural interactions of in-person communication. Our entire business models, OSS/BSS stacks, organizations and processes are built around these transactions.

However, we don’t think about the other side as much: it is very hard and expensive for application providers to build into the transaction model of today’s communications, and most of them are too smart to even try. We’ve created a formidable moat around our legacy communications castle: telcos are locked in, and app providers are mainly locked out.

WebRTC, paired with pervasive Internet, enables any service provider, any web developer and any application provider to become a telco.  WebRTC helps bridge the moat from a provider perspective and helps enable  freemium business models.  Simple voice and video will move towards free, and we’ll pay for the features on top of the voice and video. Any provider, not just your friendly neighborhood telco, will be able to leverage WebRTC to make money from freemium interactions and free us from the transaction shackles.  This includes both direct retail companies providing us with WebRTC-powered apps and services, as well as enablers like Twilio and Voxeo.  Who knows exactly how this ecosystem will develop, but it will develop.

Business drivers for the mobile carriers

  • Can you hear me now?  If Verizon doesn’t cannibalize their own communications revenue, others will. WebRTC will help any application support voice and video. There is still value in our CLIDs (for now), integrated service delivery and any-to-any communications.  However, user experience and costs trump everything else.  If Verizon gives me identification/integration/pervasiveness, and helps to enable the experience of making video calls with one touch from my photo sharing app, then I’ll take it.  Else, you and I are still video chatting while perusing photos, but Verizon is asking why they can’t hear us now.
  • Can Verizon afford to hear me?  Verizon needs to offload traffic from their wireless last miles.  So does your mobile carrier. Verizon will not be able to collect enough revenue to offset the tremendous infrastructure and support costs of supporting 4G and better data for upcoming subscriber densities.  WebRTC enabled voice and video is a powerful tool for Verizon to leverage in their need to offload mobile data to other last miles.  An example is when you are in your home or business.  Verizon could easily detect that and transfer any sessions to/from your mobile phone on to your computer or tablet browser.  Verizon could put your mobile phone directory right on your browsers, enable you to call with your mobile CLID, gateway any calls that you make to the PSTN (or any island not directly compatible), and of course offer you integration with other WebRTC features.

Business drivers for the fixed line carriers

You can already see the big carriers starting to work Congress and the media to start lobbying for subsidies to tear down the business that our taxes and government regulations have helped prop up.  The fixed line business has a short half life.  The main leverage these carriers still have is inertia and our credit cards.  Can WebRTC help them survive?  Maybe, so they better take a shot.

One idea as an example: convert all of our lines to DSL, enabling carriers to:

  • Keep selling POTS to folks that want it, but do it in an affordable, extensible manner.  Give these customers a WebRTC-powered VoIP client.  Wrap it up inside a phone-like appliance if necessary.  Unlimited calling for flat rate of whatever price they are paying per month now.  Start saving millions in infrastructure, support and OSS/BSS.
  • Sell backup Internet access.  Sell that DSL connection as a second (or third) Internet connection.  WebRTC and the Internet of Things will help make these redundant connections increasingly important, even if it just for low bandwidth transactions and emergency backup purposes.  Carriers may not even sell it directly to consumers – providers of certain services and apps may pay for the redundancy (perhaps you pay ADT for a platinum level of monitoring and ADT in turn pays your DSL provideer.
  • Sell WebRTC enabled apps and services.  The carrier has the business and billing relationship with you.  Leverage it to sell WebRTC enabled apps and services, and/or serve as a commission-carrying channel for other WebRTC communications providers.
  • Sell primary Internet.  Some of us are close enough to central offices, and/or have limited enough Internet needs, that we buy our only Internet connection from the fixed line carrier.
  • Sell WebRTC IaaS to WebRTC app providers.  WebRTC can take advantage of cloud infrastructure such as proxy servers and TURN servers.  Telcos will have racks of empty data center space once they get rid of old class 5 and class 4 switches.  Telcos also have backbone bandwidth, peering relationships and network engineers.  Most WebRTC app providers don’t have those assets, and would prefer not to invest in them.  Infrastructure as a Service deals could be made.

We can come up with many other similar scenarios.   Bottom line: WebRTC is an opportunity that the fixed line providers should not pass up.  They have business motivations, e.g. survival, to try to dive into WebRTC waters.  They have some assets to try to leverage while they still exist. 

WebRTC red herrings

  • WebRTC will not make inter-island communications easy
  • WebRTC doesn’t provide identity and authentication solutions
  • WebRTC will be one of many – CU-RTC-WEB and others will also take segments
  • Browsers will not all support WebRTC and cross-browser compatibility will be problematic

Many have argued that the statements above will doom WebRTC.  I made the argument too.  And, all the above statements, IMO, are true.  So what gives?  Well, at the end of the day, those statements don’t matter.  They are red herrings.

  • Islands are now in.  Communications islands used to be associated with uncertainty (who can I talk with on this island and how well will it work) and the possibility of work or friction (how difficult to get on and how difficult for my friend to get on)…the perceived costs were so high relative to the benefits (mostly cost) that most communications islands became lonely places (with a few exceptions).  However, now it is easy to go island hopping and we do it all the time.  With WebRTC helping to voice-enable and video-enable all islands, we will communicate from whatever island we are already on, or easily hop to another island if we prefer.  We often get caught up in the island red herring (I know I do) because of the utopia of any-to-any, IP-based communications, and our current any-to-any PSTN.  However, when the world changed 66 million years ago, did new dinosaurs replace the ones that became extinct?  No, entire new species developed because the entire ecosystem had changed.  Communications is the same – the entire ecosystem has changed - there will not be another PSTN because today’s Internet ecosystem is better suited for islands.
  • Multi-identity is the future.  Will WebRTC and friends federate identity across islands and use third-party identity providers?  Some will.  Other times we will choose to use the identity we use on a particular app (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).  If our mobile carrier plays ball, we might choose our mobile CLID.  Other times we will choose to be anonymous.  The days of a handful of communications identities are gone.  WebRTC providers will put us in control of our identities and authentication choices, and it will be their job to take care of aspects like security and billing within that paradigm.
  • I love CU-RTC-WEB.  Yes, we are going to get a fragmented, heterogeneous communications ecosystem: WebRTC, CU-RTC-WEB, Flash, plug-ins, proprietary solutions, NextBigThing, etc.  We can argue WebRTC is better or worse than any of them.  WebRTC isn’t going to change the world by itself.  But it doesn’t need to.  The paradigm changes are pervasive Internet; separation of transport/access/connectivity from application and application provider; and the merging of communications, applications and services.  WebRTC is a very strong change agent in that paradigm shift and will work with others to change the communications world.
  • Remember IE6?  Browsers have never been compatible.  But most users don’t know it when the developers do a good enough job coding for the differences.  Remember all the CSS pain (or still feeling it?) of IE6 versus just about every other “modern” browser?  Whether WebRTC is wrapped in browsers or apps (and it will be in both), the developers will ensure that the differences between the implementations don’t cause us pain.  This isn’t like working with SIP SDP m-line difference caused incompatibility – this will not be a major issue.


Telepresence is the closest current remote communications method to in-person communications: telepresence gives us distance collapsing features such as eyeball to eyeball quality, HD resolution and  immersive collaboration.  I use telepresence all the time and it is great.  However, telepresence, and its communications cousins, are still mainly discrete transactions, whereas in-person communication is a series of interactions.  The most disruptive user benefit of WebRTC is to melt the differences between the transaction and interaction paradigms, like in the Avalanche Lake series of interactions.  WebRTC will help move the (remote) communications world towards interactions.

Timing is everything.  WebRTC is entering the Internet-ecosystem that is full of new business model niches.  WebRTC will help providers fill many of these niches, and create new ones, helping to change the communications world.  This is not a one-winner war – WebRTC will act with other change agents to enable this paradigm change.

Just like at Avalanche Lake, jump in, even if the water seems a bit intimidating.