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January 03, 2017

WebRTC: One of 2016's Biggest Technologies No One Has Heard Of

By Special Guest
Chad Hart, Head of Strategic Products at Voxbone

By now you probably have heard of WebRTC - the Web-oriented, open source VoIP technology and standard that burst onto the scene five years ago. However, it is likely those of your friends and family outside of the tech industry have never heard of this technology. The term “WebRTC” is rarely seen in mainstream tech headlines and product launches. Does that mean WebRTC is just a fad for the niche telephony market? As I will discuss below, WebRTC may not be part of the popular vernacular, but the apps it powers certainly are.

By most measures, WebRTC had a phenomenal year in 2016. On its five-year birthday party last June, Google provided several key milestones from stats it collected (with some updates last month):

  • two billion Chrome browsers with WebRTC
  • one billion WebRTC audio/video minutes per week on Chrome
  • one Petabyte of DataChannel traffic per week on Chrome (0.1 percent of all web traffic)
  • 1200 WebRTC-based companies and projects (it was 950 it June)
  • five billion mobile app downloads that include WebRTC

At this rate, WebRTC is doing far better than any other previous VoIP technology at the five-year mark: 

Big success on mobile in 2016

WebRTC’s success extends well beyond Google. More importantly, most of its success has been beyond the Web in native mobile applications. For example, Snapchat (which just passed 60 million daily active users) uses WebRTC to power its video calling feature. It has no Web app for its main features. Remember Meerkat? Meerkat is dead, but the team behind it continues on with a new mobile group video calling app called Houseparty. Houseparty emerged from nothing a few months ago to more than one million daily active users. You won’t find the term “WebRTC” mentioned anywhere by the company, but the technology is quietly powering its capabilities. Likewise, Duo - Google’s new Web calling app - has no Web app either and is WebRTC-based.

Interestingly, the most successful WebRTC app developer is actually not Google – it’s Facebook. Facebook’s Messenger has been playing with WebRTC in early 2015. In less than two years it has more than 300 million monthly active users taking advantage of its voice and video features. It is continuing to add new features and grow its user base. Just this month it added group video calling. Facebook also announced it had more than 245 million people making just video calls every month. 

Facebook Messenger has passed more than 300 million monthly active users of its WebRTC-powered voice and video features.  Image source: http://www.nerddict.com/2016/06/download-facebook-messenger-for-windows.html

WebRTC is not constrained to consumer markets either. The technology is already widely used in products like Citrix’s GotoMeeting and Cisco’s Spark. The fast-growth enterprise communications challenger Slack has also been rolling out WebRTC. Earlier this year it launched group audio calls and now it has added video calling using the same WebRTC architecture.

Some less than bright spots

With all these high profile wins, it is easy to forget that WebRTC does not work everywhere. It has some major gaps in Apple and Microsoft ecosystems. Apple does not allow any browser maker to build a Web browser without using its own Web engine, and that engine does not support WerbRTC. That means Safari has no WebRTC support anywhere and even Google’s Chrome cannot offer WebRTC capabilities on your iPhone and Tablet. That means WebRTC developers need to build native mobile apps for iOS support, often at greater expense and difficulty vs. building a Web app. As noted above, the big deployments are native mobile apps (that don’t use the browser) away, so it does not appear to be too much of a hurdle. Still, we may see more of the mobile Web using WebRTC as Apple makes progress on adding WebRTC to the WebKit engine that powers Safari and iOS browsers. 

Microsoft is also a backer of the technology with several major announcements in 2016. Edge, the new Windows 10 browser, supports WebRTC. Skype users can make calls from Edge without installing any additional software. Microsoft even started using WebRTC to support Skype on Linux and Chromebooks. Microsoft will not add WebRTC to Internet Explorer (IE), preferring instead to migrate users to Edge and Windows 10. Edge is making a lot of progress on many WebRTC features, but at 2-5 percent market share, it has a ways to go before it overtakes IE.

What’s in Store for 2017?

2016 was a big year for WebRTC. Can 2017 beat it? Growth continues for the all the major apps cited above. With new WebRTC-based features being deployed all the time, it is likely that growth will accelerate. Adding WebRTC to an application is only getting easier, so we are likely to see a whole lot more of it. I think it is likely we will see some form of WebRTC in Safari (but who knows how much). Broader support for WebRTC, especially continued movement away from IE, will help make WebRTC penetrate mainstream enterprise applications.  

All-in-all, I actually expect to hear less about “WebRTC” and more about cool new real time communications apps. As 2016 has shown, WebRTC truly is moving beyond the term du-jour to an indispensable technology powering today’s hottest communications applications. It is well on its way to being a technology you can explain to your friends and family via the many apps they use all the time.

About the Author
Chad Hart is Head of Strategic Products at Voxbone where he is responsible for the global VoIP provider’s new service offerings in the area of WebRTC, Communications APIs, and cloud communications infrastructure. Chad is also Chief Editor and blogger of webrtcHacks.com – a blog for WebRTC developers.

Edited by Alicia Young
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