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In part 1 of this Industry Buzz podcast, Dave Michels moderates a debate among UCStrategies Experts about WebRTC. Topics explored: what does it mean, its importance, whether it is over-hyped, and whether it is going to change our lives. The discussion includes UCStrategies' Phil Edholm, Steve Leaden, Russell Bennett, Kevin Kieller, and Art Rosenberg.
For more information on this topic, as mentioned in the podcast, visit the WebRTC World website, and also look up the WebRTC Conference and Expo, November 27-29, in South San Francisco.
Also on this topic:
Dave Michels: Hi, this is Dave Michels with the UCStrategies team and today we’re going to talk a little bit about WebRTC. It’s the “in” buzzword right now. A lot of organizations, a lot of websites, a lot of vendors are talking about WebRTC. What does it all mean? Is it important? Is it over-hyped? Is it going to change our lives, or not? That’s today’s topic and let’s get into this right away. Phil, I know you’ve got some strong opinions on this – why don’t you kind of set the stage and explain a little bit about WebRTC, what it is, for a level-set, and then give us your position on it.
Phil Edholm: Thanks Dave, that’s great. WebRTC is something that I think really has sprung into the marketplace in the last three or four months, though the genesis is actually many years in the making. WebRTC is actually a very simple concept. It is putting a real-time media engine into a browser. So the net-net is, if I want to have a real time media engine, whether it’s in a PC or in a tablet or in a hard phone, I need three things. I need a foundation which is the processor, the memory, the storage, basic operating system, microphone, speakers, etc. I need a graphic interface for the communications, and I need a media engine. The media engine basically takes the raw voice and video camera outputs and puts them on the networks, sends them to the right place, does all the jitter management, does all the codec management between the devices; does the negotiation, and then on the far end, gets it out, decompresses it, and outputs it.
Basically if you look inside any device, you have those three components. In a PC, obviously the foundation is the PC itself. In a hard phone, it’s actually the phone and the Broadcom chips that are inside the phone typically. What happened was, about a year ago, broke onto the world, this concept of WebRTC which was actually driven initially by Google. Google bought a company called GIPS, GIPS had a media engine. They actually open sourced that and proposed putting it into the browser. And in fact, that media engine is now in Chrome. It’s behind a flag, you have to turn a flag on to be able to use it, but it’s actually in the current Chrome browser.
So what does this mean? I mean the thing that becomes really interesting is what does WebRTC mean? Is WebRTC just a competitor to SIP, is it just another technology? I’ll suggest that I think that this is a revolution. Obviously, a lot of us have been around during the transition from communications from TDM to VoIP, and I will argue that everything we have seen so far, has really been evolutionary. Even to a great extent UC, is pretty much evolutionary. But this is a revolution, and the revolution is this: it is exactly the same thing for communications that happened with the browser and the World Wide Web to information 20 years ago. In 1990, we all connected to servers. Servers represented us and we had a static singular connection to a server. It was the old client-server model. And if I wanted to get information to you, our servers had to interact. And there was a lot of discussion back in 1990 about EDI and even federation among servers and how that would work. And what happened was, this technology called the browser, which came out of HTML and the NAPLP North American Presentation Player Protocol, actually emerged as a way to build an interface device. And the guys at CERN, looked at this thousand servers they had all over Europe, and said, “rather than trying to connect the servers together, what if we just built a system where we could have the browser connect to the server where the information is?” And that was the genesis of www, dot, and URL’s and what we know as the web.
What happened is, when that broke in the market in 1992, the world changed in a profound way. We no longer have servers talk to other servers on our behalf. With the exception of email which is the one appendix technology from that timeframe, I point my browser at the server where the information is I want. We’ve gone from a small number of servers; think about AOL back in 1990, to 100,000,000 webservers that are out there around the world. We’ve built incredible architectures and infrastructures around finding information with Google. And of course, incredible new applications, whether you go from Ebay to Amazon to Facebook, all based on this profound shift that I no longer have a server that represents me, I no longer go through a portal to get information, my browser gets pointed where the information is. What WebRTC does is exactly the same thing for communications. Instead of me having my server negotiate with your server to make a phone call, which by the way, every phone call, every one of us that are ever made, are servers negotiating with servers.
What happens is, I point my browser at the server that is going to manage the communications. That might mean that in a course of a day, I point my browser at 10 or 20 different servers, and they actually do communications. If I have a conference with three people at this server, I may have a conference with 10 people at this server. I may go to this server to talk individually to an individual. But each one of those, the server that I’m pointing my browser at, defines not only the look and feel of the communications, but the communications event itself. Whether it’s direct peer-to-peer, whether it includes media services, however it evolves. So essentially, now, communication looks like the Web. We can have 100,000,000 service providers, you can have a service provider of one that’s just you and people come there to talk to you.
Companies can now extend themselves with a guest portal. So imagine for a moment, pick your favorite vendor, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Siemens, ShoreTel, whomever. They come out with a WebRTC guest portal where what I do is, I go to a company that has their product installed, and on their webpage, on the contact I click, and it goes now to a page that says enter the name of the employee you want to talk to and I enter Bob Smith. That brings up Bob Smith’s page and it says who are you, why do you want to talk to Bob. So I enter my name and why I want to talk to Bob, and now Bob gets an invite to a website that tells him I’m there to talk to him. If he wants to talk to me, by clicking, now I’m communicating with him using my browser with WebRTC. So actually, if you stop and think about it, a lot of the technology we talk about in federation, just went away. Because I don’t need to federate Bob’s company and Steve’s company together, all Steve needs is the URL that points to Bob. Just like we don’t federate two companies together to exchange information.
So I think this is, to me the transformation of WebRTC is not a technology transformation. It’s a transformation in how WebRTC impacts how communication is established and how it’s done. At its core, WebRTC is a very simple technology. It is not like 323 or SIP, where the endpoints are highly intelligent. Just like the browser, the endpoint is a presentation/communication engine that is controlled by the server that that browser is connected to. So this means it’s very simple to manage and drive communications. I think if you look across four constituent groups over the next two years, we’re going to see WebRTC dramatically change the landscape.
In Enterprises, whether it’s in traditional telecom, or in contact centers, you can see this huge transition coming. In traditional telecom, for BYOD, it’s like I talked about, guest portals. Contact centers it’s really obvious, 70% to 80% of the calls to a contact center in the western world, are preceded today by a visit to the website. With WebRTC, you can now, really easily integrate real-time communications in a website. And in fact, what this is going to mean for many organizations is that their website team and their contact center team are actually going to be pushed together to deliver that value. If you look at the service provider world, both for facility-based service providers, over the top service providers, this is absolutely a great technology.
There are over 70 different versions today of the Android operating system and skins in different devices. With WebRTC, you don’t need to deal with the operating system, you deal with the browser, which is common across all those devices. And so implementations become a lot easier, delivering services becomes a lot easier. And by the way, if you look at WebRTC, you’ll see companies from the Twilio’s of the world, from the TenHands, from the Vidtels, from people like Frizby are all adapting WebRTC as the interface they’re using in the next generation of over the top communication platform. For website operators, I mean literally every website that involves more than the simplest information and multiple people, could in fact, use WebRTC for real-time communications.
And finally, WebRTC opens the door to that which we have not yet thought of, just like the original web and the original browser created transformations and industries because people thought differently. How many of us thought about building the world’s largest auction site when we saw the first browser, because we wouldn’t have invented EBay. How many of us thought about that you could transform, totally retail purchasing, because you wouldn’t have invented Amazon and of course none of us thought about inventing Facebook and bringing people together. All of a sudden we have same thing for real-time communication. Just imagine for a moment that two years from now, that new car you buy, has a browser built into it, which they really are...it has WebRTC in it, has 4G communications, and all of a sudden, based on where you’re driving, you can have real-time communications. Quite frankly, I don’t know what the application is, but I bet somebody out there will think about some brilliant way that having real-time communications in your car, based on where you are, can change the way you drive and the way you interact.
This is what WebRTC means, it’s not a technology, just like the browser in the World Wide Web were not technologies, it’s how they’re used to transform the way we do things. In the last 20-year journey of information systems, of information and enterprises of the browser change in the world is now going to make yet another significant change. So Dave, personally I think it’s, we talked about hype and that, this is not about hype, it’s about a transformation, and it’s about really, I think the next iteration of communications. So with that I’ll throw it back to you for comment.
Dave Michels: I completely disagree with you about it not being about hype. After listening to you, I took about 20 pages of notes – underlining the hype part. But we’re allowed to disagree. My problem with WebRTC basically is that I’m already in the trough of disillusionment. You’re talking about real-time communications in a car, I have real-time communications in my car, I’ve had it for years. In fact I think I got my first cell phone in ’85, something like that. My other concern is that the industry tends to move a lot slower than I think a lot of these WebRTC champions are talking about. And I just hosted a session on “Hosted Voice,” UC-as-a-service, and I asked them where they’re still getting their customers from. Are their customers replacing first generation IP systems, and the answer was, and this is a whole panel, the answer was no, they’re all coming from TDM systems still.
We’ve had VoIP on the horizon, I remember VoIP, well in 2000, 2002, 2003, in conversations just like I heard from you. Then it became Unified Messaging, then it became Unified Communications, it’s always the next big thing – it’s going to change the world. And I think it is great that we can make phone calls from our browser and I have often, I have been doing it for years, I do it with plug-ins, obviously, because there’s no standard yet. But I don’t believe the plug-in has been a barrier to life itself, and I am hoping that Mr. Leaden has a view that can kind of bring us back to earth here. What do you think Steve, are you excited like Phil?
Steve Leaden: Thanks Dave. We deal primarily with the enterprise community. We work for large to very large enterprises in health care, finance, manufacturing, and others. And we’re definitely seeing movement toward the clouds and to your point just now, there is definitely great interest. We’re deploying a very large cloud solution, multiple thousand endpoints in a leading kind of client. We’re really taking existing technology in that venue and moving it now into the cloud and more towards the managed service. So we’re just moving the parts around, we’re really not creating a new technology.
In this particular case, and we’re also going through several procurements, and what we’re seeing, with the client community, is that the enterprise is really not willing to give up the desktop just yet. Now I know that Phil didn’t say that, but I think that eventually if WebRTC really takes off to the potential level that it could be, it could be eventually a replacement to the desktop. So one of the things we talk about consistently with clients is that when you take features and functions…
Dave Michels: Steve, when you say replacement to the desktop, are you talking about the hardware or the softphone? What do you mean by that?
Steve Leaden: I’m about a hard phone Dave, the actual, physical desktop. And so what’s really happening is, and this is where I think the enterprise communities, the vendors themselves are actually challenging the notion, is that they’re continuing to evolve the desktop at a similar price point to the older price to even just 24 months ago, with more feature richness. For example, we saw some of the manufacturers within the last three days, and some of the latest gigabit phones now have video enabled or touch screen enabled, has apps set that can interface with a browser and things along those lines. Some of those have been around for a while but the fact that you can now have a touch screen with video enabled right into the desktop, kind of the phone of the future that we saw earlier, is now kind of finally coming through here. But the basic 5-9’s model of reliability, I’m just not seeing anybody give up in light of features and functionality. So again it goes back to, if the WebRTC interface is a browser interface, which again marries itself back to the laptop and to the PC desktop... are people willing, and is the end user community willing to give up the 5-9’s model? I’m not seeing it yet. They really need to have that feature functionality and that voice communications on full-time, every time.
We’ve been talking about the demise of the phone desktop now for eight to 10 years. The vendors themselves are actually challenging this simply by coming up with new products at similar price points to where an older product was just 24 months ago, so we’re seeing that. And then this is a technology I think is going to take some time to evolve, WebRTC; I think we’re in a super hype stage right now, I think there’s a lot of companies and developers gaining interest in it. When will it become again, a defacto or a standard for the community? My estimation/opinion is 36-48 months, maybe even longer. And I think in order to challenge the whole notion of again gaining space into the vendor community, the Cisco’s, the Avaya’s, the Microsoft’s, the Siemens, the NEC’s, the Mitel’s of this world, the ShoreTels, etc. I think they’re going to really combat this by saying, I’m going to work up a WebRTC interface in order to swallow it, so to speak, for lack of a better word, into my IP-PBX, VoIP, unified communication infrastructure so that it becomes now another app on my network, in this way, it will become less of a threat. So I think they have, in the background I do see this as a potential threat to them, but I see them countering it pretty quickly.
As you’ve seen other kinds of kinds of software enabled feature sets, that are coming from the vendor community, how they’re offering a lot of all-in-one. And then how do you support WebRTC, is the PBX vendor going to support this, the IP-PBX vendor, is it going to be supported by the IT department as a standalone, is there going to become a blame game potentially? So really, the way I see this in the end is aside from picking your own device, which we are seeing some of that as well, I think it’s really too early to tell and we’re going to have to see. But I’m excited about a new product entering the market, a new standard, if you will, as long as everybody can agree on, on the standards at the end. And we’ll see where this goes. My opinion, do I think there’s going to be a total replacement or every phone endpoint out there, no I don’t see it that way. Do I see it as an add-in potentially to maybe to replace the softphone at some point, yes I do. Do I see it to enrich the call center environment with additional features and functionality, yes I do. But again, I think it’s not going to really become the pure threat as potentially it could be or perceived.
Dave Michels: I’m glad that you used the word “threat” when you presented your thoughts there. There’s a lot of excitement about WebRTC, and I understand the excitement. I mean I love the idea of any browser being ready to be a UC endpoint. But one of the arguments with the softphone is that it’s less expensive than a hard phone. And it hasn’t been that less expensive. I mean it’s been a little less expensive, but the cost of the headset, the licensing cost, has maybe made it 50% less expensive than a hard phone. And a lot of the UC vendors are spending a lot of money and effort developing clients, UC clients for the desktop. So I imagine that one of the potential threats of WebRTC is that the client development will go away in the UC space, some of the vendors are already using rich HTML5 type of client on the desktop. But they have to do a plug-in for the codec and the voice and video capabilities. If that’s already built into the browser, then they can eliminate their clients, which should lower the price even further, which of course, lowers the channel price. And I think we’re seeing WebRTC as a potential one more step toward the lowering of margins and prices for telecom, which is both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on where you sit in the channel.
But it’s interesting that you used the word threat, because I think that there’s definitely a threat potential to WebRTC that doesn’t get a lot of discussion. What I just described there is – and actually what you’re talking about too is a lot of the enterprise focus of how WebRTC could impact the enterprise. There’s also this whole other element that Phil was touching on, about how it touches outside the enterprise and consumer desktops and people at home. And I think that’s a really interesting opportunity. Phil described the ability that being a website and turning that into a phone call. It’s nice in theory and a lot of people can do that now, they can put in a phone number, the system calls them back, and things like that. But the reality is, a lot of desktops aren’t well equipped to be for UC communications. You need to have a decent microphone, decent speakers, you need to have a noiseless environment where you’re at, you need to have a decent headset instead of the microphone and speakers. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. I go to lots of websites when I’m in meetings or presentations or some like that, I cannot possibly take a call in those environments and I hate for that assumption to be there that oh, he’s on a web browser, he can take a phone call. I don’t think that will play out.
Steve Leaden: Just one other footnote there, and that is that I think in order to differentiate each vendor from each other, I think they’re probably going to be coming out with their own kind of proprietary versions of WebRTC in order to provide an enhanced environment. Whenever we talk to clients about a fit phone to replace the more proprietary phones that are available from the manufacturer themselves, the market hasn’t caught on. Those manufacturers that are manufacturing their own proprietary sets still win because of the feature richness that they can provide over a more generic phone desktop. So it’s kind of interesting how this is going to play.
Phil Edholm: I’ve kind of listened to this conversation and I remember the same conversation in 1992. When people saw the browser and said well I can already do that in AOL, I can already do that with my 3270, I can already do that... I think you’re kind of missing the point here. What’s in the browser is going to be in the browser. With HTML5 and WebRTC, you can create a highly individualized and optimized experience – because it’s not a soft client. See, that’s the whole thing, you think about it and you say, “oh it’s a soft client,” you miss the whole point. So I think that’s a pretty critical point of information to think about.
Dave Michels: It’s interesting, Phil, because you talk about having the same conversation a decade ago, but a decade ago just like Steve was pointing out, a decade ago we were talking about SIP being a universal standard and the end of proprietary endpoints. And we haven’t seen the end of the proprietary endpoints. And even in the case of SIP endpoints, you’ve got Avaya, Siemens, NEC also in pretty much their own endpoints through their own customers. And then you’ve got basically the standard endpoints being the asterisk or the open source space and a large part of the hosted space is using interchangeable standard – but that’s still the exception, it’s still the smaller part of the market. And so, I think it’s just important, absolutely you’re right, this is a huge invention, huge discovery, huge step forward, but whether the whole industry is going to take that step in the next couple of years, I find really hard to believe, I just don’t buy it.
Phil Edholm: But I think again the point that I was trying to make is that I think that it’s going to be not just the telecom industry; it’s going to be all of these other organizations that are going to start enabling communications in new ways. And that’s going to introduce some very interesting concepts. We’ve all talked about CEBP for a number of years. The minute people get comfortable that my telephone is not my real time communication device... I’m used to doing other things, whether it’s an over the top conferencing that Bob sent me that I joined using my browser, or it’s that I’m using it as an extension to Facebook or LinkedIn, all of a sudden the Oracle’s and the SAP’s of the world are in an really interesting position that they can start taking their technology which most of them already have, of real time, and saying this is how you do real time within a business process app.
So it’s not integrated with your telephone, so the telephone begins to be a specific kind of communications. And I think, obviously it’s not going to replace the telephone, that’s long-term before the telephone gets replaced. I think for organizations that have an existing enterprise solution, it probably doesn’t replace that. It may augment it, but I think you begin to see more and more kinds of communication happening outside of the traditional telephony infrastructure. And as that happens, the value of the traditional telephone infrastructure begins to diminish as these other technologies take over. So that’s really to my mind the transformation that’s happening.
Note: This is the end of Part 1. Part 2 will be available shortly.
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