Has WebRTC Proven That No One Cares About Communications Service Interoperability?

The standard Web technology for voice and video telephony -- WebRTCTrack this API or Web Real Time Communications -- turned five earlier this year. Support for WebRTC can be found in most modern-day browsers as well as many open source development tools (like React and Crosswalk). As a result, companies that want to enable their apps for voice and video communications do not have to burn valuable resources developing proprietary client side technologies. Most of the necessary client side support is already present in the browser and accessible through JavaScript APIs or equivalent native mobile API’s.

While WebRTC is not a mainstream term (despite a Silicon Valley reference), it has quietly come to be the primary technology contender of the telephony world. Companies such as Google, Snapchat, Facebook, and even Skype are starting to leverage the technology. One main reason for this success is that it is not trying to play nice with everyone.

WebRTC is Crushing It

On its five year birthday, Google reported that WebRTC clocked more than 2 billion supported browsers (every Chrome browser and nearly every Android device), and 1 billion minutes/week from its opt-in Chrome statistics. This is on top of 5 billion WebRTC app downloads and more than 1200 WebRTC vendors. Recently Facebook reported it has more than 300 million monthly active voice and video users on its Messenger product. At 30% of all active Messenger users in less than 3 years, this is impressive, considering that Messenger’s voice and video is based on WebRTC. Add in Google’s Hangouts, Snapchat, Google’s  new Duo app, Skype for Web on some platforms, and hundreds of other apps, and WebRTC easily has more than 500 million monthly active users.

With this level of engagement after only a short existence, this is far ahead of any other VoIP technology. One might think that WebRTC has had an unfair advantage versus other tools because it can leverage an existing installed-base of Web browsers. However, other VoIP technologies like IMS, RCS, and VoLTE had the potential to leverage the entire mobile network installed-base, yet they came nowhere near close. In fact, VoLTE technology, which is VoIP on your LTE connection used in the newest roll-outs for phone calls, is projected to reach only 310 million users this year out of a total LTE installed-base of 1.29 billion. The telcos have lost hegemony of what was once their core business.

"Users" of various VoIP technologies (IMS, RCS, VoLTE) roughly 5 years after their introduction. Note "user" often means install or supported devices vs. WebRTC’s 500M+ monthly active users.

Old Habits Die Hard

We are using the standard voice dialer on our phones less and less, making the voice businesses of telecoms increasingly irrelevant. One of the major underlying reasons propelling the decline of these traditional telecom services is their insistence on federation among vendors for end-to-end interoperability. WebRTC standards ensure one browser can talk to another, but it decidedly does not mandate one application needs to talk to another the same way that a Verizon mobile phone subscriber can call a Comcast Xfinity Voice user over any of the billions of Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) numbers out there today.

Universal interoperability and federation among telecommunications providers has been a core tenant of telecoms for more than a century. Before most of the world had the Internet, the only way to reach someone else electronically was with the phone network. Phone service was originally geographically restricted, usually by law, so there was no real competitive threat between AT&T in the US and British Telecom in the UK. When they worked together it benefited both of their subscriber bases. Now however, the Internet and Web are turning every telecom carrier into a global provider. Despite this change in competitive dynamic, telcos have often perpetuated the belief that all communication services need to talk to all other communications services, no matter what network they are connected to.

Be sure to read the next WebRTC article: Microsoft Commits to Real-Time Communications with WebRTC 1.0 API Release