WebRTC could be a weapon for innovative carriers

The emerging world of WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) took another step forward last week when Ericsson launched what it said is the world’s first WebRTC-enabled browser for mobile devices. Bowser, as the experimental browser is dubbed, is designed to enable developers to embed audio in video in web-based apps in ways that might otherwise be impossible. Developers can use Bowser to embed video that isn’t full-screen, for instance, or that floats around the screen – features that mobile browsers often don’t support – to create web-based apps that integrate video and voice.

WebRTC is a new HTML5 standard framework that enables the transmission of multimedia and other data between browsers. As Wikipedia explains, WebRTC is designed to support features such as video chat and P2P file-sharing without plugins. Backers aim to help developers build more advanced apps without spending the time and money necessary to build native apps for multiple mobile platforms such as Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Mobile apps like Skype and Instagram, then, could be used within the browser and across platforms rather than between two native apps.

The WebRTC hype is justified – if a bit premature

As is often the case with any new technology, there’s plenty of hype surrounding WebRTC. VentureBeat recently said it will unquestionably change the web, ZDNet predicts it will be a boon for enterprise networking by removing interoperability issues and expediting the development of mobile software, and Hookflash cofounder Erik Lagerway wrote in GigaOM last month that it will upend the mobile world.

That excitement may be a bit premature – the W3C draft of WebRTC isn’t yet complete, and the industry has yet to settle on a standard. Microsoft recently unveiled its own proposal for WebRTC, placing it at odds with browser developers Google, Mozilla and Opera. And strong support from app developers won’t occur until those hurdles are overcome.

Those challenges notwithstanding, the W3C WebRTC working group will eventually approve a common API for both voice and video chat between browsers. Such a move could certainly appear to be a huge threat to mobile carriers, who continue the slow descent toward becoming dumb pipes that do nothing more than move data across cellular networks. But I think WebRTC could actually become an important weapon for network operators in their expanding battle against OTT (over-the-top) service providers.

WebRTC and the rise of OTT

The emergence of OTT players who provide traditional cellular services regardless of carrier or network has been well-documented over the last few years. Text-messaging offerings such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger and third-party apps such as WhatsApp have slowly begun to eat into the cash cow that is SMS (although I continue to maintain that SMS revenues are still alive and well for most carriers in most markets). And Skype and other VoIP providers are eating into the voice revenues that were once the telcos’ bread and butter.

Carriers can employ WebRTC to fend off those OTT offerings, though, if they can find innovative ways to encourage their customers to consume web-based data on their networks. As Amdocs’ Tsahi Levent Levi recently wrote for VisionMobile, carriers can monetize WebRTC by ensuring call quality for customers willing to pay to make sure their conversations have the highest priority on the network. They can integrate their server-side infrastructures with WebRTC to develop compelling new rich media and messaging services that are both interoperable and easy to use.

But carriers won’t survive the coming disruption that is WebRTC without rethinking their subscription-based business models, as Dean Bubley noted in August. WebRTC will help usher in an era of pervasive voice and video where conversations could occur in almost any context beyond traditional person-to-person calls, from in-game chat to social networks to within web-based enterprise apps. Some of those conversations will take place through the cellular network, but many will not – and many users won’t pay monthly subscriptions if most of their conversations don’t really require a carrier. So network operators not only will have to develop innovative apps and services that leverage the power of WebRTC, they’ll have to find innovative ways to monetize their users as the protocol gains traction over the next several years.