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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How fast will WebRTC go mainstream? And will it be "beyond the browser"?

I've come across two interesting things this morning:

1) Snapchat apparently now has 100m monthly users and is valued at $10bn
2) I heard an ad for a free conference calling service on the radio

Oh, and thirdly, I saw a TV ad for Amazon Kindle the other day, featuring its Mayday live-help service.

Common theme? WebRTC, but not in generic "video calls in your browser" style, nor for greenfield "standalone" communications, but to add a feature to an existing product.

Mobile-messaging "OTT" player SnapChat acquired platform provider AddLive earlier this year, which it now uses as the basis for its integral video-chat service. While Snapchat's main service is "ephemeral messages" which disappear after viewing, it also now allows existing contacts to chat in realtime, while the camera button is held down. It's not used by everyone, but is interesting in that it's "WebRTC as a feature" and also in that it's not a traditional "person A calls person B for X minutes" model. And of course, SnapChat runs as a native app on smartphones, NOT as a site accessed via the browser.

Amazon Mayday has long been discussed as a clever and expertly-integrated use of WebRTC video/screen-sharing for customer service and support. It is overlaid on an existing SIP-based voice contact centre platform. It does one-way video only, so again not a "call". And it's launched with a dedicated button, not as a browser/website action on the Kindle Fire.

And then Freeconference.co.uk (owned by Iotum), which has an established audioconferencing bridge service using ordinary circuit dial-in. It's offering WebRTC (via the browser) but in audio-only mode at present. Again, it's putting WebRTC into an existing service platform and business model.

Now it's true to say that all of these services are leading in their respective fields. Not all of their competitors or peers have gone down the same path yet. But nevertheless, they demonstrate that WebRTC:

1) Is indeed commercially-viable, and in the "real world"
2) Is not just browser-based, but also in mobile apps
3) Is not just about "calls"
4) Is not just about video
5) Works on iOS irrespective of Apple's support in Safari
6) Has a device-support level well above the 1bn level and an active user-base that will likely be >10m people by the end of the year
7) Spans both consumer and enterprise domains (and telecoms if you include appear.in, Tuenti & Skyway)

If I compare this to the situation a year ago, the change is staggering. It's very easy to miss the overall change in tone and relevance, when you're close to the coalface. Yet these examples - including run-of-the-mill radio and TV ads, and articles in mainstream business publications - are an indicator of what is to come.

Those of you that have read this blog for a while will know that it's quite rare for me to be more enthusiastic than "the market" about a technology. Normally I'm the one criticising hype and deluded expectation. Yet I'd still say that WebRTC is an unusual example of something that is underhyped. It feels quite strange for me to be an advocate rather than a cynic.

I'm putting the final touches to my new report, which forecasts WebRTC trends out over the next 3-5 years. It is due out next week. If you email me & confirm a pre-order, I'll offer a discount before launch if you mention this blog post. Details from information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Have I found the first WebRTC scam? Choose your platform provider with care...

WebRTC moves fast. As part of writing my 2014 Edition research report, I'm trying to keep on top of all the various new market entrants, especially the proliferating range of platform and API providers. So I was unsurprised when a search threw up a new (and UK-based) WebRTC company called Streamserver. I clicked the link, thought "Oh, another one" and fired off an email to the CEO asking for a briefing, and inquiring how he was positioning and differentiating his company in an increasingly crowded space.

Then I noticed something familiar - a reference to Double, the company making the cute telepresence robots that are familiar sights at WebRTC conferences (and which feature in most of my slide-decks). I know that Double has worked with Tokbox, so I was a bit surprised - maybe they had a better platform, and had ousted their rival? Maybe they provided a bit of software that was incorporated into Tokbox's platform?

Then I had another look at the "About Us" page. The CTO's picture looked very familiar to me. But his name didn't ring any bells. One of his colleagues looked like somebody I'd met at a conference as well. Then I realised - the CTO, allegedly "John Bair" looked like the identical twin of Tokbox CEO Scott Lomond, who's almost as prominent a figure as the robots his WebRTC software powers.

[I've got screen-caps if/when the site is taken down]

In fact, the whole website looked remarkably similar to Tokbox's - the people, the proposition, the customer references. The prices were much lower though. Initially I thought that maybe this was Tokbox trying a clever approach to price discrimination, or testing elasticity curves, with a cut-price sub-brand. Then I realised that giving pseudonyms to your executives is probably not best-practice for that type of exercise. Also, having no contact address, news, blog and - most-tellingly - no Twitter icon seemed dubious.

So I asked Tokbox directly, and judging from their response on Twitter, something dodgy is indeed afoot. I'd probably best avoid too many defamatory comments, but it seems like I've uncovered a rather "clumsy" (*cough*) attempt to gather names or payment details illicitly. Now it could be that the company is legitimate, but it hired a dodgy website designer who's copied some content into a template, or who put the website up live, while it should have still been locked-down. Or maybe there's another wholesale explanation - but I'll leave that one up to Tokbox's lawyers.

The other question is whether this is a one-off, or might get repeated elsewhere. I have no idea whether there are questionable cloud-services offers elsewhere in the web universe, although a search for cloud+fraud throws up various types of exploits. Presumably there are both financial and content/security-related risks in working with an untrusted WebRTC platform, although actual P2P media traffic should be secure unless it goes via a TURN or media-processing server. So I'd add "caveat emptor" to the already lengthening set of decision criteria about choosing a WebRTC platform. And I'd suggest that other platform players' web designers do an image search to see if their execs' mugshots are lurking elsewhere on the net.

I guess this means I can now describe myself as a WebRTC Analyst, WebRTC Pioneer and now the first WebRTC Private Investigator. And I can categorically confirm that clicking the "buy" link for my research report will take you to a genuine payment service, and only deduct the right amount of money from your credit card. And if you're a shady character thinking about setting up a dodgy platform company, forget it, read my report & exploit one of the genuine WebRTC opportunities instead....

EDIT - I've also noticed that the copied Terms of Service page, here, clumsily leaves in TokBox's street address and even Lomond's name as DMCA contact. Oops.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NEW! 2014 WebRTC Report Preview: 900m Business/Enterprise Users of WebRTC by 2019

Disruptive Analysis was the first analyst house to publish a detailed study and forecasts on WebRTC, way back in February 2013. The continually-updated forecasts of device support (c4bn by end-2016) are used across the industry, with the exponential-type chart a standard feature of conference presentations.

Now, Disruptive Analysis is preparing to launch a full refresh of the reference document on the industry's progress & forecast adoption rates. As before, it will cover all use-cases for WebRTC - enterprise B2C & B2B, consumer web, and telecom operators - adding in new analysis of areas like cloud platforms, real-time data, M2M/IoT and mobile WebRTC.

The report will be published in the next few weeks and will be 100+ pages in length, including more than 30 charts, tables and forecasts. Data will include updated estimates of device support of WebRTC (including PCs, tablets and smartphones) with geographic breakdowns. Uniquely, there will also be quantified forecasts per major use-case.

The report examines the shifting support of browser vendors and mobile platforms, including the role of ORTC, and 3rd-party cloud APIs used for creating WebRTC apps on mobile devices.

As a preview of one of the new data-sets, Disruptive Analysis is releasing an important new forecast. By the end of 2019, the total number of business-related users of WebRTC will exceed 900m, worldwide. This will split fairly evenly between regular users and occasional users. The full report will have more detail, methodology and analysis of this dataset.

The scale and scope of WebRTC adoption in enterprise and small-businesses is particularly stark, when one considers that there are only 300-400m conventional business "phone system" extensions or seats today using PBXs, IP-PBXs and UC. In other words, many or most business users of WebRTC will not get that capability from their normal business voice infrastructure.

Instead B2B WebRTC functions will be offered from sources such as:

  • 3rd-party videoconferencing platforms and services
  • Application-embedded communications (eg in horizontal systems like ERP, or dedicated vertical-industry software)
  • Public cloud/app-based services, including free or "consumer-grade" products, business social-networking and other sources
  • Carrier-based VoIP/VoLTE services extended over WebRTC
  • Mobile-only services delivered via device browsers and native apps
  • Guest access from customers/suppliers' systems or web portals 
As well as today's main business communications platforms of UC, conferencing and contact-centres, Disruptive Analysis also expects a range of new middleware platforms to emerge, embedding WebRTC directly into other applications. Several vendors and cloud platforms are already enabing that type of capability - some will be integrated with existing systems, while others will focus on new standalone "islands".

There is a parallel here with the telco world - a new class of customised business applications will embed "B2B-OTT communications", bypassing the classical central control of voice/UC vendor platforms, and with separate identity and security models.

This is just one of the angles that the new 2014-edition Disruptive Analysis WebRTC report will cover. There will also be detailed examination of service-provider use-cases for WebRTC, as well as adoption by the general "consumer web" and mobile apps.

All new online orders & payment for the existing WebRTC report (last updated in March 2014) will automatically receive the new report on publication. Click HERE to order the previous study.

For other inquiries about the report or to pre-order, please contact:
information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Voice-only applications: The Cinderella of WebRTC

I'm currently working on a major 2014 update of my WebRTC report & forecasts. As part of this, I'm reviewing all the major use-cases for the technology that have emerged so far, and those that are predicted in coming years. This spans enterprise, telecom, consumer web, mobile and assorted domains. (Pre-register interest in the report by email, or via the info request form on the right)

One thing I've noticed is that there's a surprising lack of voice-only use-cases for WebRTC. Video accounts for a far higher proportion of focus than could reasonably be expected. Indeed, when everyone lazily refers to WebRTC as "Skype in the browser", they almost always invoke an image of video chat or conferencing. You almost never hear terms like "VoIP in the browser" or "Vonage/Viber/etc in the browser".

Now certainly, there are various WebRTC audioconferencing products out there (eg Uberconference, Drum, Iotum), while Vonage itself had one of the first mobile WebRTC apps deployed last year. And a number of internal contact-centre solutions use a browser dashboard and a headset instead of a traditional telephony platform. Twilio CX is a good example of this. Plivo and Tropo also have voice-centric cloud platforms. Telefonica's Tuenti WebRTC app is currently VoIP-only too, as is Movirtu's Cloudphone extension for 2G/3G voice.

But these are exceptions. Most vendors, most apps and most WebRTC cloud API platforms are video-centric. It could be that video is just a harder problem for most developers, so WebRTC is a much bigger step forward. And of course, video is "shiny" and demo-friendly in a way that audio often isn't. It often needs bigger and better network boxes too, as well as smarts in mixing or transcoding that aren't (yet) as easy to commoditise or open-source at scale. And it needs lots of bandwidth, so understandably many people are keen to encourage its growth.

All these are fair enough, and I agree with them. WebRTC will indeed catalyse huge growth in video uses and usage. But it doesn't get around the fact that the vast bulk of today's realtime communications is voice-centric. Apart from the history, there's a practical reason - a lot of people cannot or will not use video in many cases - either because it's dangerous (eg driving/walking), invasive, distracting or uncomfortable. And if a given person is willing and able to use video, say, 30% of the time, that implies that any two people can use it just .3*.3 = 9% of the time. And any three, four or more people even more rarely, unless it's a pre-arranged conference. 

"Spontaneous video chat" is therefore very rare, unless preceded by a voice/IM session that escalates. (A video call to a ready-and-waiting customer service agent like Amazon Mayday is a special case).

So it seems strange that so few WebRTC applications and services are targeted at the audio-only, or even audio-primary marketplace.

I have another theory about this. I'm starting to wonder if people just don't quite feel comfortable "talking into a browser", unless it involves video as well. The browser is such an image-centric application, that audio-only communications websites often feel a bit weird. 

This is true for one-way audio too - we still see most audio/music use in dedicated applications - Spotify and Pandora and iTunes are still use desktop applications, even if they have some browser capability too. Web-based conferencing/collaboration software often pops open a separate "phone" window, if it doesn't just avoid VoIP altogether. Such tools also often assume use of a headset.

Some of this is a legacy of browsers needing plug-ins for audio communications - Flash, Silverlight and so on. (For music, it's also about DRM). There certainly have been a number of Flash-based PC VoIP websites in the past, but none has really emerged as a major winner.

Playing amateur psychologist here, I wonder if this is because audio-only applications (VoIP or WebRTC) have three modes of operation:
  • Using an external microphone, typically a headset
  • Using the integral microphone of a PC
  • Using a phone (smartphone or deskphone)
Talking into a headset or handset somehow feels quite "natural" to us. In particular, the speaker and microphone are in the right places, relative to our ears and mouth, so we don't feel like we're shouting - and can indeed modulate our speech down to a whisper if we want. We've also been habituated to it by 100 years of telephony.

It's the middle category that's the problem here - talking into a PC or large tablet's integral mic, and listening to the other person via the device's speakers. Without video cues as well, it feels like you're either talking to an inanimate object, or hearing a "disembodied voice". If you can see the other person, you are able to suspend disbelief that you're conversing with a lump of glass and metal. You're not sure how loud you sound to the other person, and there's also the risk of feedback. You're also aware of the fact that you're broadcasting your conversation to your surroundings - especially if you're speaking unnaturally loudly to make sure the mic picks up your words. 

(To take this to the extreme, imagine having a voice-only conversation through your TV. Weird idea, isn't it?)

Now it could be argued that this will just drive video adoption further and faster, with WebRTC as another catalyst. And in some instances, it will indeed do that. But as already mentioned, video isn't always an option. In business, video can compromise confidentiality (eg the whiteboard behind you), or massively increase costs in a contact-centre scenario. For telcos, it brings a whole host of QoS and application issues, and increases transmission volumes multiple times, for an (at best) much more modest uplift in revenue. 

WebRTC-powered video will absolutely have many uses cases, but it equally certainly will never be ubiquitous or the default mode for all human communications. Therefore, there seems to be a significant gap for companies (or open-source) solutions to enable more pure-audio WebRTC than is currently seen.

To my mind, the opportunities will emerge in three areas:

  • Use-cases where it can be assumed that headsets will already be being used, such as contact centres. Otherwise we face the irony and clunkiness of a plug-in free WebRTC service requiring the user to find and plug-in a physical device.
  • Mobile use-cases, where WebRTC audio is baked-into an app. This is most obviously suited to telephony-style applications where the phone is held to an ear, but for some reason we don't seem to mind speaking into a smartphone or tablet from a distance quite as much as a PC. (Perhaps because it's held closer, typically).
  • "Integral microphone & speaker" use-cases with much more well-designed UIs, that help overcome the cognitive dissonance of shouting at a machine. This might also mean WebRTC in standalone native applications, as an alternative to the browser.
I'm not a designer or ergonomicist, but observation of other PC-based VoIP services might yield some clues. For example, it helps a bit if the service or website displays a static photo or avatar of the other person - your brain starts perceiving "he/she" as the target of your speech, rather than "it". There's also mileage in displaying other visual cues - perhaps a dial-pad, or a graphic of a microphone, or even audio level meter so you don't feel the need to shout.

For audio-WebRTC to succeed, there will also be other considerations. For example, Skype maintains a little control-pad hovering in the foreground on a PC screen, even if the main app is behind something else (eg a presentation, or a notepad).

Some of the proposed use-cases for WebRTC are going to need some more thought here - for example "click to speak" to a call-centre, or perhaps communications integrated directly into emails or adverts.

Overall, I think that pure WebRTC-VoIP applications are something of a forgotten domain at the moment. Let's see if good design can provide a glass slipper for this Cinderella.

Details of Disruptive Analysis' WebRTC research & update service are available here. Please also get in touch via the request form, or information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com about the forthcoming update release.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Telecom vendors should not couple WebRTC too closely to their IMS strategy

A regular theme at WebRTC conferences, especially in the telco/service provider tracks, is "To IMS or not to IMS". There's usually a quick discussion of 3GPP standards progress, a presentation from a vendor or two, and an operator core-networks specialist talking about a trial they've run in a lab. There might also be an API management company, trying to pitch their tools as a way to expose IMS-anchored capabilities to developers.

All of which is fair enough. I expect that some of the telco use-cases for WebRTC will (eventually) involve IMS in some regards. An obvious one is extending VoLTE to non-LTE devices, as a form of "web-phone" rather than the dedicated softphone applications of the past. We might also see some variants on hosted PBXs, the long-mythical telco video-calling services, or some pointless RCS APIs that none of the roughly 17 active Joyn subscribers will ever use.

But my normal advice to operators - whether on conference panels, during private workshops or in my published research - is to diversify WebRTC across multiple units and teams. While the core networks/telephony team battles to add it to IMS, the enterprise unit should be looking at it in a completely separate way, as should the digital/OTT team, the IPTV arm, the developer-platforms initiative, the M2M unit, the internal CRM project, vertical-specific partnerships, wholesale, arms-length MVNOs and all the various local OpCos.

In other words, IMS-related work should only make up maybe 20-30% of a typical operator's overall WebRTC investment, focus and resources. It's a part of the story, but a slow-moving and mostly unsexy part. It might be generating a few extra features, but nothing to move the needle. The usual mantra among the IMS/WebRTC contingent is "it's just another access", which pretty much defines the limits of their vision and ambition straight away.

But there's another dimension here, on the supplier side. Certain vendors only ever reference WebRTC in the context of their IMS solutions and products. Again, it's "just another access", with a fairly unsubtle corollary message of "it's just another function of our IMS, so please buy it".

I'll call out Huawei in particular here. I don't think I've seen anything about WebRTC from the big Chinese vendor that didn't have a IMS slant - even its otherwise cool M2M Telemedicine demo, which inexplicably tries to kludge in an RCS angle. This may be reflective of the Chinese market as a whole - despite heavy presence of companies in the standards bodies, I'm not aware of many actual consumer-web or enterprise-centric WebRTC deployments and apps coming from China.

Alcatel-Lucent is almost as polarised, although sometimes with a veneer of API glue between the two. It even has a white paper distinguishing IMS-based options from "islands", which is set up on a straw-man premise asking whether WebRTC could ever replace the PSTN and demanding that "action must be taken to incorporate IMS with WebRTC immediately". The paper has all sorts of extremely-questionable assertions, including "People must be universally reachable though voice, video [!] & messaging". Written by George Orwell's great nephew, I assume, and possibly worthy of a full dissection in another post. (Full unintentional-irony marks to ALU for the download web-form asking for Twitter handle rather than phone number, though). 

Mavenir seems to be solidly planted at the IMS-only end of the WebRTC spectrum too, although that is unsurprising given its focus as a company. NSN is pretty much "missing in action" with regard to WebRTC, but the only recent mention on its website is in a reference to an IMS session controller.

(Semantic sidenote: at the moment, IMS is merely an archipelago of small islands connected by wooden canoes, compared to the Australias & Greenlands of Internet apps)

Conversely, while Ericsson is obviously an IMS believer, it seems willing to go off-message on WebRTC - here's a prototype it's been playing with on Google Glass, complete with Node.JS for signalling. Cisco has a big enterprise presence, so it's no surprise to see it being at least as enthusiastic about WebRTC in an UC and conferencing context as it is in the telco domain. 

GenBand, Oracle, Sonus and Dialogic are also fairly agnostic, looking at both IMS and non-IMS use cases (and varying their messages depending on the audience and event concerned). Metaswitch targets both IMS and non-IMS service providers with its WebRTC gateway capability, as well as integrating into its open-source NFV-IMS Clearwater platform. Acision seems to be looking at both telco and enterprise domains with WebRTC, and while some of the messaging angles derive from its SMS heritage with a faint whiff of RCS, it's all quite well-buried under a cloak of "interoperability where wanted".

I'll do a deeper analysis of this (plus various other vendors) in an upcoming update of my WebRTC report, but it's really jumped out at me in the last few weeks.

The key point here is that vendors - even if they are IMS "true believers" need to follow in the footsteps of the telcos. WebRTC activity and product development MUST NOT be "just another bit of the IMS product", but must be democratised across the entire organisation and its affiliates. All the vendors have big integration, support and professional services teams - these should be using WebRTC as part of their internal and client communications. The OSS/BSS functions should pragmatically employ it. 

The R&D teams should be using video and screen-sharing. Vendors' new product teams should be looking at opportunities around cloud platforms & API management tools for telcos that wish to emulate Telefonica Tokbox. They should be thinking about re-entering the enterprise market, even if they sold off their old PBX businesses. Interactive TV systems, set-top boxes, M2M infrastructure and vertical/government solutions should embrace WebRTC where relevant. None of these should be beholden to IMS integration as a core strategy, even if it intersects at relevant points.

Maybe a higher fraction of WebRTC efforts - say 30-40% of total investment & resources - should be based around IMS integration for some vendors. But it is exceptionally risky to put all WebRTC eggs in a fragile, slow and unambitious WebRTC basket.

Ultimately, IMS needs WebRTC more than WebRTC needs IMS, both for service providers and the web at large. If vendors like ALU & Huawei continue to deliberately ignore (or worse, denigrate) non-IMS use cases for WebRTC, they are disenfranchising themselves from a huge chunk of the future communications industry.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

So-called "Platform Neutrality": nothing to do with Net Neutrality, and a minefield of unintended consequences

One of the things I've noticed cropping up over the last year has been the concept of "platform neutrality". It's a line of argument used by telecom lobbyists and executives to shed light on perceived unfairness stemming from Apple and Google's control of their respective ecosystems (and, to a degree, Microsoft and Amazon and others).

It seems innocuous at first - I've seen it defined as "consumers should be free to procure and use legal apps and contents on any platform from any source".

In other words, the telecoms industry doesn't like the control that Apple has over its AppStore and iTunes and similar platforms, nor Google over the Play Store and other properties. Some of this is fairly reasonable - Apple has some rather arcane, non-transparent and inconsistent policies about apps it allows in its store, while Google could be accused of manipulating its search results in ways to maximise revenues. There are also persistent rumours that only favoured developers get access to "private APIs" as well.

It's not obvious to me, however, that such practices warrant either huge regulatory intervention, nor conflation with the more prominent concerns about Net Neutrality. There might be some unfairness - perhaps even questions over competition - but they are both entirely separate from, and of a different magnitude to, various network practices that telcos have been lobbying for. Apart from anything else, all iOS and Android devices have open access to the web, which many market participants keep claiming to be the equal (or at least equivalent) of native apps.

I would certainly concur that extra transparency from Apple and Google about their app policies would be beneficial, as well as some guarantee of consistency and right-of-redress. Lack of portability of apps, music and other material could also be an angle where competition authorities might probe. 

Yet I find it deeply hypocritical that telcos are trying to position themselves as champions here, as they don't really have a particular axe to grind and many practice egregious examples of application lock-in themselves. I'm also not aware of any operator apps that have been blocked from appstores, although some may still be smarting from their own failed attempts at launching stores and application platforms like the ill-fated WAC.

But there are deeper problems here, if you start thinking about the possible legislation of "platform neutrality". Given that increasingly "everything is software", any such rules would have very widespread ramifications - as well as all manner of ironic unintended consequences which could harm telcos even more than the device/Internet giants.

So while the intention might just be to allow customers to buy digital music from any online store to install on an iPhone, rather than just iTunes, extending that to a general rule would also imply:

  • Forcing telcos to ensure that other telcos (or Internet companies') telephony and messaging systems were available as alternatives to their in-house "primary voice" offers. In other words, users should be able to select Orange or AT&T or Skype as primary telephony providers on a Vodafone or Telefonica-provided handset.
  • Force telcos to allow users to replace connection-management software with any similar apps of choice. This would wipe out any future attempt to force devices to specific WiFi networks, for example.
  • If consumers are able to procure any content or app, they should also be able to remove or delete any app. This would work out badly for operators selling customised handsets, pre-loaded with their own apps or extra features. It could also mean that re-flashing an operator handset with legal (but vanilla) OS variants would also be expressly permitted in law, without sanction from the operator.
  • Forcing network vendors to allow 3rd party software to run on routers or switches - or their future SDN/NFV platforms. So Cisco might be forced to release APIs for Huawei & Ericsson Oracle to use, and vice-versa
  • Forcing providers of set-top boxes for cable/IPTV to allow Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple software to be installed onto their platforms
  • Forcing cloud SaaS providers to accept rivals' applications on their platforms - maybe hosted Office 365 on Google, or Microsoft CRM on Oracle's cloud, or Twilio on Verizon's cloud.
  • Forcing games console providers to deny exclusive deals, or special versions that cannot play on rival systems
  • Forcing car manufacturers to accept each others apps on in-vehicle systems - say, a Ford-branded navigation app in a BMW, or Mercedes engine-management software in a Jaguar.
  • Forcing TV manufacturers to allow users to install ad-blocking software.
I'm sure there are many other awkward cases where "allowing any legal software to be procured" could back-fire with fairly catastrophic effects on the operator.

And all this is before you get to issues around exactly how all this gets enforced, especially with platforms that are part-cloud, part-OS, part-Web and part-silicon/firmware. There's also all sorts of bear-traps about how all this actually manifests in APIs, what happens when "porting" stuff to new platforms incurs extra IPR costs (eg because on platform has licenced a patented technology, but another hasn't) and innumerable others.

In short, a lot of this is just usual telco whining about Apple and Google being smarter and faster than 3GPP and GSMA. And, as usual, the lack of understanding of the nature of software risks huge unintended consequences - especially around the forced "neutrality" of telcos' own platforms.

There possibly is a case to be made for application or content portability between different devices and OS's, to reduce switching costs from one platform to another and reduce lock-in risks to consumers. And I do agree that AppStore policies should be more transparent and enforced consistently.

But notably, none of this is something that consumer groups get especially riled about, especially to the same degree as Net Neutrality. Linking the two areas is mendacious and irrelevant. And above all, the "principles" of so-called Platform Neutrality exhibit seriously woolly thinking and a complete misunderstanding of the roles of software platforms. Some measure of lock-in or platform control is often desirable - including for the telecoms industry at itself. 

The main similarity between supporting Platform Neutrality and opposing Net Neutrality is that both have the potential to have huge and damaging unintended consequences for the telecoms industry. Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

WebRTC applications: are we expecting too much radical innovation, too soon?

One of the recurring themes at WebRTC conferences and demo sessions is a slight air of crestfallen anticipation, when those of us who are "old hands" are shown YAVA - "Yet Another Video-chat Application" or YACC - "Yet Another Contact Centre".

I've been watching WebRTC evolve for over 3 years now, and I'm really looking forward to the "new stuff" which is going to replace the old paradigms of the "phone call" or the "videoconference". I love seeing things that are genuinely new, such as some of the emerging ideas for data sharing between browsers - WebRTC CDNs, or privacy-protectinng web searches.

But those are the exceptions. Back in the real commercial world, I keep getting shown YAVAs & YACCs rather than all the cool new toys. I want to see facial-expression reading video analysis, which automatically draws a smiley face on my caller if they're sad. I want to see my own face used as an avatar in social media, with data-channel sharing of sensor information to show if I'm warm or just embarrassed. I want infra-red CCTV of cute squirrels in Regents Park & to be able to confuse them by feeding them 3D holographic peanuts*. I want a WebRTC drone, dammit, even if I can't use it legally & don't have any applications for it!

Yes, there are some cool things starting to emerge - but most of these are applications or twists on existing ideas. Video-chat in healthcare. Video-chat for online consultations & training sessions. Video-chat in contact centres, including one-way video for Amazon Mayday. Video-chat with co-browsing of a website. Video-chat with Instagram-style filters. Video-chat with web cookies and speech analytics.

So yes, they're all video-chat. But in useful forms, often where no use of video existed before, or which required separate Skype or Hangouts sessions with minimal integration. This is all a good set of developments, yet we're too easily bored by it.

Part of the issue here is that the broader mass of web/app/enterprise developers aren't really sure how to think about communications yet. In particular, they are unlikely to both think about a new feature (embedded video/voice) AND ALSO think about using it in new ways. Ask most people about forms of communication, and you'll just hear "phone calls" or "Skype" or "Whatsapp" or "email".

I have enough trouble educating the telecoms industry that there's more to communications than a "call". The idea that the broader developer universe (focused on solving other business problems) is going to leapfrog 120 years of learned behaviour and go straight to free-form, unproven ways of setting up realtime interactions is a tall order. Especially as they also have to think about getting the WebRTC machinery working. Very few are going to go straight from uncommunicative websites/apps, to entirely new concepts with push-to-talk video or media-processed & auto-initiated audio streams with inbuilt lie-detection & realtime translation.

I think we're in danger of setting unreasonable expectations for WebRTC. All of us jaded old communications veterans, who've "been there, done that" with assorted flavours of videoconferencing, might just overlook how much value there is in many more useful and cheap forms of videoconferencing that have been tuned specifically for doctors or TV broadcasters or insurance loss-assessors.

I guess that original inventors of, or commentators on, petrol and diesel internal combustion engines must have got a bit bored by the year 1890. "Oh. It's yet another car. Only with 4 wheels this time. Whoopee". 

But then eventually the Wright Brothers showed up (and the tank-builders of WW1) and things moved on. Yet mundane petrol-powered cars were what led to Henry Ford and the dynamics of the 20th Century.

Remember, there's only a handful of easily-conceived interaction models and variables here. Forward-facing or rear-facing camera. One way or two way. One person initiates, the other accepts, two people "meet" consensually, or something random. What-you-see-is-what-you-get, or media-processed in some way. Audio, video, a mix of both. A conversation with one or both people speaking, or images/sounds of other objects or hybrids. 

You get the picture - most folk will tend to revert to the most obvious models such as two talking heads, at least initially. And there's plenty of value to be found in extending that model.

It's up to all of us to try to catalyse truly "new stuff" - either by dreaming about it and making it happen, or by highlighting cool stuff when it does appear. But let's not denigrate the bread-and-butter, especially if someone has realised it's actually a bit better as a sandwich, or as toast with Marmite on it. So YACC away, YAVA's alright in my book. Just make it a bit different and better than whatever has existed before.

*no squirrels were harmed in the writing of this blog post