Ericsson open-sources OpenWebRTC, providing rival to Google’s WebRTC implementation

Ericsson has open-sourced its experimental Bowser browser and released it (again) for iOS. Not only will this twin-pronged move provide the only WebRTC-supporting browser for Apple’s mobile platform, but it will also give developers an alternative to Google’s implementation of the promising standard.

WebRTC is a neat piece of HTML5-based technology that allows voice and video chat within the browser, without the need for plugins. It can also be used for file transfers and, as the now-defunct private search engine Blippex demonstrated, anonymization too.

[company]Ericsson[/company] first released Bowser in 2012, for both iOS and Android, as the world’s first WebRTC-supporting mobile browser. It pulled the app in February of this year, noting that both Chrome and Firefox now support WebRTC on Android. As Bowser team leader Stefan Ålund wrote at the time: “We do not exclude that we some time in the future will again make a test browser available for download if there is an idea we want tested.”

Bowser’s back

Fast forward to Thursday this week, and Bowser is back on the menu in more ways than one. Not only has Ericsson submitted it to Apple’s App Store – unlike Android, iOS still lacks a WebRTC-supporting browser – but it has released the underlying OpenWebRTC client framework as free and open source.

Ålund, Ericsson Research’s manager of media applications and protocols, told me the resurrection of Bowser was “a little bit more ambitious” than testing an idea. “In this release, we are not only releasing Bowser but also the underlying framework that we developed internally and used internally for research purposes,” he said.

“It can be used to build native WebRCT apps on pretty much any platform – iOS, Linux, Mac OS X, Android.”

Ålund said Ericsson is conscious of the fact that [company]Google[/company]’s WebRTC implementation is more mature and by now quite widely used – it powers all the WebRTC-supporting browsers out there today – so OpenWebRTC will be the “second implementation” for now.

Good to have choices

He continued:

We believe the fact that there is only one implementation is not good for the WebRCT standard. WebRTC is a standard defined in the W3C and IETF. It’s important to have competing implementations. They should be developed independently but still interoperable… We want to provide a second or an alternative implementation for developers to make it a bit more clear, the distinction between an implementation and the standard.

So why should developers play around with this implementation rather than Google’s? “Our engineers have done a fantastic job in developing a framework that is very flexible and modular,” Ålund said. “We’re also building it on top of another very mature open-source media framework called GStreamer that’s been used for many years in this space. It’s very solid and modular. Any additions to that framework will trickle up into our framework.”

The iOS version of Bowser has been submitted to, but not yet accepted into, the App Store. As for why there still isn’t any other WebRTC-supporting browser for iOS, Ålund was loath to speculate, though he pointed out that Apple had recently joined the WebRTC working group. “There is a window here before Apple adds WebRTC support to their platforms,” he suggested. “There’s been a lot of discussions about adding WebRTC support to Chrome on iOS, but Google hasn’t done that yet.”

So what’s in this for Ericsson? Ålund said the firm believes WebRTC will be a very important building block in future communications services, so anything that promotes it is good for the company. “Ericsson is today primarily a network and services company and anything that increases the data in the mobile networks is obviously eventually something that’s good for Ericsson,” he said. “More data in the networks will mean more base stations sold.”