WebRTC: One of the biggest technologies no-one has heard of

Summary

The term “WebRTC” is rarely seen outside of the tech industry and, even here, it doesn’t usually make headlines on the biggest sites or feature prominently in product launches. Does this mean it’s just a fad for the niche telephony market? It shouldn’t be. Not when it’s powering some of the most popular communication apps around. Chad Hart looks at WebRTC, its huge potential and how it deserves more credit than it gets.

Introduction

By now you’ve surely heard of WebRTC – the web-oriented, open-source VoIP technology standard that burst onto the scene five years ago. But how many of your friends and family outside the tech industry can say the same? Most have never heard of this exciting and innovative communication technology.

The term “WebRTC” is rarely seen in headlines on mainstream tech sites or in product launches. Does that mean it’s just a fad for the niche telephony market? As I outline below, WebRTC may not be part of the popular vernacular, but the apps it powers certainly are.

By most measures, WebRTC had a phenomenal year in 2016. On the technology’s fifth birthday last June, Google shared several key milestones from stats on the its performance to date (with some updates last month):

  • Over 2 billion WebRTC-enabled Chrome browsers
  • Transmission of over 1 billion audio/video minutes per week via WebRTC on Chrome
  • 1 Petabyte of DataChannel traffic per week on Chrome (0.1 percent of all web traffic)
  • 1200 WebRTC-based companies and projects (it was 950 it June)
  • More than 5 billion mobile app downloads that include WebRTC

Impressive numbers, but they’re negatively skewed by the growing number of data-only subscribers on tablets and other devices. Looking at “minutes” on a per capita basis is a cleaner metric. This shows a much more interesting picture, where mobile phone usage for traditional calling actually went up by 16% thanks to WebRTC.

At this rate, WebRTC is doing far better than any previous VoIP technology at the five-year mark.

Big wins on mobile in 2016

WebRTC’s success extends well beyond Google. And most of it has come beyond the web as well, with native mobile applications the biggest drivers int its uptake. For example, Snapchat (which just passed 60 million daily active users) uses WebRTC to power its video calling feature. It has no web app for its main features.

Remember Meerkat? Meerkat is dead, but the team behind it continues on with a new mobile group video calling app called Houseparty. This new app emerged from obscurity a few months ago to more than one million daily active users. You won’t find the term “WebRTC” mentioned anywhere by the company, but that’s the technology quietly powering its capabilities. Likewise, Duo – Google’s new web calling app – has no web app either and is WebRTC-based.

In fact, the most successful WebRTC app developer is actually not Google – it’s Facebook. Facebook’s Messenger has been playing with WebRTC since early 2015. In less than two years since then, it’s grown to more than 300 million monthly active users – all taking advantage of its voice and video features. It continues to add further capabilities and grow its user base. Just this month, group video calling was added to Messenger. Facebook went on to announce it had more than 245 million people making video calls every month.

WebRTC is not constrained to consumer markets either. The technology is already widely used in products like Citrix’s GotoMeeting and Cisco’s Spark. The fast-growth enterprise communications challenger Slack has also been rolling out WebRTC. Earlier this year, it launched group audio calls and now it has added video calling using the same WebRTC architecture.

Some less-than-bright spots

With all these high profile wins, it’s easy to forget that WebRTC doesn’t work everywhere… yet. There are still Apple and Microsoft-shaped holes in its ecosystems. Apple doesn’t allow any developer to build a web browser on its phones without using its own web engine, which still doesn’t support WebRTC. That means Safari has no WebRTC support anywhere and even Google’s Chrome cannot offer WebRTC capabilities on your iOS.

WebRTC developers instead need to build native mobile apps for iOS, often at greater expense and difficulty compared with building a web app. As noted above, the biggest deployments are native mobile apps (that don’t use the browser) anyway, so it doesn’t appear to be too much of a hurdle. Still, we may see more of the mobile web using WebRTC as Apple makes progress on adding the technology to the WebKit engine that powers its Safari and iOS browsers.

Microsoft is also backing the technology with increasing gusto and made several major announcements in 2016. Edge, the new Windows 10 browser, supports WebRTC. Skype users can make calls from Edge without installing additional software. Microsoft even started using WebRTC to support Skype on Linux and Chromebooks. But it won’t add WebRTC to Internet Explorer (IE), preferring instead to migrate users to Edge and Windows 10. Edge is making a lot of progress on many WebRTC features, but at 2-5% market share, it has a ways to go before it overtakes IE, let alone competing with Chrome and Safari.

What’s in store for 2017?

2016 was a big year for WebRTC. Can 2017 beat it? Growth continues for all the major apps cited above. With new WebRTC-based features being deployed all the time, this expansion will only accelerate. Adding WebRTC to an application is getting easier, so we are likely to see a whole lot more of it in the near future.

I think it is likely we’ll see some form of WebRTC in Safari (but who knows how much). Broader support for WebRTC, especially continued movement away from IE, will help WebRTC penetrate mainstream enterprise applications.

All-in-all, I actually expect to hear less about “WebRTC” and more about cool new real-time communications apps as the year progresses. WebRTC is moving beyond the term du-jour to become an indispensable technology powering today’s hottest communication apps. It is well on its way to being a technology you can explain to your friends and family via the many apps they use every day.

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