WebRTC Expert Feature

August 15, 2013

Personal WebRTC Portals

There was some discussion of “WebRTC Portals” at the Atlanta WebRTC conference and I expect we will see even more in November in Santa Clara. However, right now we seem to be having one of those early market discussions where everyone hopes they are talking about the same thing but no-one is quite sure! So it’s time to start putting some stakes in the ground … and watch them burn.

Traditional communications has been based on addresses, starting with globally ubiquitous phone numbers, E-mail addresses and domain names, eventually adding instant messaging and Twitter handles. In most of these cases the caller chooses and controls their own client, such as phones and apps, into which they enter the target address to communicate. A major innovation driven by Twitter, but also around in RSS and other things before, has been widespread subscriptions to streams that allow you to quickly see all kinds of communication mixes from different people according to your interests.  Communication then tends to be more like broadcasting, although DMs are possible - unless you mess them up and blow your political career. All modern platforms now incorporate heavy doses of “follow” streaming. Meanwhile the core social media world was initially about creating destinations – such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, DeviantArt, Tumblr, Etsy, Storenvy and many more – where you come and “visit” me at a place where I have prepared a rich experience for you. You then communicate with me directly within my experience, posting to my wall, responding to my posts, liking/envying my things, sending me messages or email-like-communications, etc. according to the capabilities of the social platform housing my experience. Destination platforms essentially provide personal portals that are all about “me” and allow me to control the experience you get.

New Internet platforms obviously combine various mixtures of these three types, but one style or another tends to dominate from a communications perspective, although this may change as they evolve. Twitter is much more about streaming and is currently a fairly limited destination where you only get to see a limited profile and my stream history and I have little control over how this experience is presented. Facebook is a much more powerful destination, which has obviously been their core strength, and they have augmented this with all sorts of streaming and communication methods. LinkedIn started as more of an address/identity/resume profile to which all kinds of streaming and destination elements have now been added. People use all these communication types in various ways, so there is no right answer. Quick exercise: what kind of platform is Pinterest?

Within the enterprise we have run things largely with address-based methods – phone numbers, extensions, multiple phone numbers (!), E-mail addresses and IM handles. The introduction of enterprise social and micro-blogging tools like Salesforce.com Chatter, Jive, Yammer and others has introduced a combination of streaming and “library destination” approaches (where you go to places to find content on topics) but has been a bit more limited on personal destinations – most people’s internal social profiles are pretty bare and you don’t tend to use them to communicate 1:1 with people. Rather you discuss topics, issues and questions on these social platforms and then phone, IM and E-mail people separately to talk. Even Skype is much more of an address-based environment just like traditional communications. Audio conferencing and video conferencing have added a meet-me communications model where I have my own room or bridge that you visit. However, these are not currently great destinations – if I am not available then you get nothing, no means to find me, and it plays annoying music so you don’t want to stay. Unified Communications environments have been trying to bring everything together but are not in broad use and most have not yet focused on generally visible personal portals (I look forward to folks telling me I am wrong).

The disruptive opportunity for WebRTC, both for enterprises and consumers, is to move real-time communications from largely address-based communications (or proprietary UC communications) to open, fun and flexible destination-based communications accessible to all. The destination model gives me control over your experience of getting access to me – I am not just an address in your tool. If I have my own web-accessible Personal Portal, for enterprise or private or both uses, then it will deliver a controlled experience with appropriate information and context displayed plus the ability to reach me in whatever ways I want to be reached right now – E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, conference rooms and of course real-time voice, video and data communications courtesy of WebRTC elements embedded on my page. This Personal Portal URL will become my new “phone number” for all online people wanting to get hold of me, and there is no reason at all it should not be attached to my phone number as well so it can be easily found (I don’t believe phone numbers ever become obsolete – I’m keeping mine). A true Personal Portal should be more than just a Personal “WebRTC” Portal – it should integrate all my methods of communication into one place, not just WebRTC, and should make accessible all kinds of useful information about me and my status, appropriately tailored to who is looking.

So where will our magic universal communications profile “portal” pages live? Is there some new startup to appear to solve all this? I suspect not – instead I think that this capability is most likely to be added to our existing enterprise and consumer applications which will then compete as to who does it best. All the usual suspects can apply – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, iCloud, Microsoft Live, Skype, Jive, Box, Oracle, SAP, your PBX vendor, your mobile service provider, your mother…  Whether these capabilities will be added by others, like we see with twelephone or Tokbox or other toolkits, or whether the owners of these platforms will decide to do it themselves, remains to be seen.

So who will you trust to be the home for your total communications identity destination (and how many will you have)? Will enterprises want to build their own for their people or will we mainly end up using more powerful public social platforms that link back into enterprises? I feel that my decision will be very much driven by the rich integrated functionality that is delivered. The communications choices available and their placement and use is much too limited in most current platforms. I want all kinds of multi-vendor communication options in one place but structured my way and flexibly targeted to whoever wants to talk to me. I also want a lot of control about who can do what. Having a call-me button just sitting there all the time is going to be just like IM visibility was – cool on the first day, annoying on the second, and you turned it off as much as possible on the third day! So I will want filtering, questioning (“who is this”), accessibility rules, voicemail/videomail options, plus back-end integration with my presence, schedule, and time-of-day rules to control my access. There are ideas towards this in Google+ Circles, differently in Google Voice, in Skype, in various UC environments, plus the currently primitive “presence” capabilities in all IM systems. But nothing today is integrated, simple, inclusive and “externally visible” enough across all my possible communication methods.

So who’s up to build the exciting next generation personal (WebRTC-included) portal software that does it all?

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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