By Jeremy Wagstaff
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - WebRTC, a free browser-based technology, looks set to change the way we communicate and collaborate, up-ending telecoms firms, online chat services like Skype and WhatsApp and remote conferencing on WebEx.
Web Real-Time Communication is a proposed Internet standard that would make audio and video as seamless as browsing text and images is now. Installed as part of the browser, video chatting is just a click away – with no need to download an app or register for a service.
WebRTC allows anyone to embed real-time voice, data and video communications into browsers, programs - more or less anything with a chip inside. Already, you can use a WebRTC-compatible browser like Mozilla's Firefox to start a video call just by sending someone a link.
Further ahead, WebRTC could add video and audio into all kinds of products and services, from GoPro cameras and educational software to ATMs and augmented reality glasses. Imagine, for example, wanting to buy flowers online and being able, at a click, to have the florist demonstrate arrangements to you live via a video link.
WebRTC will be a market worth $4.7 billion by 2018, predicts Smiths Point Analytics, a consultancy. Dean Bubley, a UK-based consultant, reckons over 2 billion people will be using WebRTC by 2019, some 60 percent of the likely Internet population.
Most of these will be mobile. Some versions of Amazon's Kindle multimedia tablet, for example, have a 'Mayday' button which launches a WebRTC-based video call with a customer service representative.
By the end of the decade, consultants Analysys Mason reckon there will be 7 billion devices supporting WebRTC, nearly 5 billion of them smartphones or tablets. Automatic voice and video encryption means web conversations should be safe from eavesdropping or external recording.
FROM DREAM TO REALITY
"The promise is fantastic," said Alexandre Gouaillard, chief technology officer at Singapore start-up Temasys. "There's always a problem with timing, between dream and reality."
Initially championed by Google, WebRTC was adopted by Mozilla and Norway's Opera Software - between them accounting for more than half of the world's browsers. In October, Microsoft committed to including a version of WebRTC on its Internet Explorer browser, leaving only Apple as the main holdout. An Apple spokesperson declined to discuss the company's plans for WebRTC in detail.
Last month, technical experts agreed a compromise on a key sticking point: which of two encoding standards to use to convert video. All sides agreed to support both for now.
Some prominent names are staking out the WebRTC arena.
Skype co-founder Janus Friis this month launched Wire, a chat and voice messaging app that uses WebRTC, and Ray Ozzie, who created Lotus Notes and was chief software architect at Microsoft, is challenging messaging and conferencing services with Talko, an app using WebRTC. Mozilla has teamed up with U.S.-based TokBox to launch Hello, a plug-in-free, account-free web conferencing service within its Firefox browser.
Dozens of mobile apps already leverage WebRTC - including Movirtu's WiFi-based CloudPhone, allowing voice calls over WiFi. Movirtu CEO Carsten Brinkschulte says WebRTC "gives us a lot of things that are free that are normally very hard to do."
This makes some incumbents nervous. One is the $2 billion web and video conferencing industry. And telecoms firms are still reeling from free voice and messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype. Even those companies look vulnerable as WebRTC reduces the cost of setting up a competing service.
"WebRTC is a magnifier," says Bubley, the consultant. "It makes the opportunities bigger and the threats worse, and everything faster."
Some, though, are putting up a fight.
Microsoft is rolling out a web-based version of Skype that will, eventually, require no extra software and will be compatible with all WebRTC browsers. And Cisco, whose WebEx is king of web-based video conferencing, has been active in developing standards. But, says Bubley, "it's in no desperate rush to accelerate."
Among telecoms companies, Telefonica bought TokBox "to learn about the space, and they've largely left us to pursue that," said TokBox CEO Scott Lomond. SK Telecom and NTT Docomo are also experimenting with the technology.
But those championing WebRTC say the technology isn't so much about challenging what's available today, but more about creating opportunities for new products and services tomorrow.
Cary Bran, vice president at Plantronics, a headset maker, sees a time when online gamers won't just be able to see and talk to each other, but feed heart-rate and other sensor data into the game, "making it more difficult or easy based on the user's level of engagement."
More prosaically, TokBox is working with banks in the United States and Europe to provide branch visitors with video links to specialists, cutting down on staffing costs.
Such options, says TokBox's Lomond, only scratch the surface of what's possible. "I don't think the broader market has fully appreciated how potentially disruptive this is," he says.
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)