WebRTC Expert Feature

July 08, 2014

OTT & UC VoIP Apps vs. WebRTC: Ignore, Adopt, or Die

Soon after WebRTC emerged -- well, merged into Firefox and Google Chrome -- I predicted that the forest of standalone unified communications (UC) and other over-the-top (OTT) apps were doomed.  A lot of software and service-based companies seem to be ignoring the prediction.  Will they ultimately adapt WebRTC or simply die?  There's at least one company that can afford to ignore WebRTC for quite a while.

My big beef with standalone UC apps is that you have to keep buying and maintaining them, be they dedicated to enterprise use or white labeled and distributed through a service provider.  It's another piece of software that has to be licensed, kept up to date, and tracked by IT.  White label apps are especially annoying, because everyone expects you to download them to your phone every time you go to a conference or user event. So I end up with a phone cluttered up with apps I use once a year and then have to remove or update the following year.

Most of the stand-alone apps would be better served by simply converting to URLs run through a browser. I click, I don't have to download a separate app each time, and it's easier to delete a bookmark than to remove an app.  A bookmark isn't going to suck up my local phone or tablet storage, either.

WebRTC provides nearly all functionality you could want from today's crop of UC applications, including high quality voice, video, and screen sharing.  Creation and maintenance is done by the web designers.

At this point, I can hear some screaming from the dedicated app people pointing out that you may need a dedicated WebRTC server or services if you want to do multi-person video conferencing or something really fancy.  But the same is true for any sort of complex functionality that you can't do in a peer-to-peer fashion.  And there's the whole, "I need my address list" argument, but everyone seems to have a way to dive into the address book on Android and the iPhone, so that won’t work.

Inertia might be the strongest force keeping users on dedicated UC apps and whole world of cheap VoIP call bypass services.  People are creatures of habit.  Users must be trained and switched over to new processes.  Businesses will make cost/benefit trade decisions between sticking with an existing UC application and migrating to a WebRTC ecosystem.  In the long run, WebRTC will be less costly and more customizable to  business needs than a dedicated app.

Adding WebRTC support to existing applications isn't that hard. There's a new toolkit, API, and/or code library rolled out every other day to add WebRTC voice and video to existing applications within minutes.  Native development may take a bit longer, but some stand-alone software companies will simply add Opus and VP8 codec support to existing programs and call it a day.

I expect a lot of current stand-alone software clients to roll in WebRTC support by the end of the year. Enterprise customers are doing a lot of projects with WebRTC, so many will follow which way the wind is blowing.

On the other side of the spectrum and in the VoIP client space, I expect Microsoft's Skype to hold out against WebRTC  as long as possible.  Skype has the largest number of users in the OTT world by a large factor and brings in the most revenue by far. There's no real urgency to adopt new codecs or rework Skype code to be interoperable with WebRTC, especially since Internet Explorer doesn't natively support WebRTC .  

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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