Is Skype a WebRTC Killer?
Ending the Skype app directory and desktop API may be Microsoft's attempt to steal WebRTC's momentum.
Skype recently informed its developers of its intent to end its app directory this fall and the entire desktop API at the end of the year. Many are seeing this as just the way Microsoft approaches its products: closed. But really Skype has always been closed. The desktop API allowed for third parties to interact with the client, not the network. Client APIs are consistent with Microsoft's approach, so why end Skype's API and store?
I think the answer lies in the building momentum of WebRTC. Many believe WebRTC is a Skype killer because it provides many of the same capabilities (real-time IM, voice, and video), and does so as an intended open standard. WebRTC potentially brings seamless real-time capabilities to every Web-connected endpoint. You can't really compare WebRTC directly to Skype, as one is a set of capabilities and the other is an application, but it is easy to imagine that WebRTC applications will flourish and broadly impact how we communicate.
Microsoft has stated its intention to support WebRTC when it becomes a standard. However, Microsoft could be accused of stalling WebRTC's march to becoming a standard. Standards live in a gray area: They're created out of multiple contrasting opinions; that's the process. It just so happens that Microsoft (and its close partners) are voicing the most objections. Microsoft has also initiated an alternative to WebRTC called CU-RTC-Web. Meanwhile, WebRTC applications continue to increase, relying on the pre-standard support within Chrome and Firefox (but not Internet Explorer).
While many have pondered if WebRTC is a threat to Skype, it may actually be the reverse. It appears that Microsoft may be positioning Skype as a threat to WebRTC.
The promise of WebRTC is a powerful one: Ubiquitous endpoints capable of IM, voice, and video communications. WebRTC poses a disruptive risk to the communications industry. Carriers and UC vendors are approaching it cautiously. Most UC vendors are embracing it as a means for consumers and customers to interact with contact centers, but WebRTC could disrupt the whole UC business model.
Microsoft offers two explanations for breaking what was already working, with its actions regarding the Skype app directory and API: 1) The desktop API is only available to desktop users, and Microsoft wants to provide a more consistent user experience across all Skype platforms; and 2) Microsoft wants users to use Skype URIs instead of APIs.
Skype URIs are similar to APIs, but use HTML as a means to activate a Skype call. For example, applications with phone numbers or Skype names can launch the Skype client to initiate a call. Skype tells developers: "Skype URIs are the preferred mechanism for integrating with the Skype client, and are supported on iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows (8, 7, Vista, XP), and Mac OS X."
A Skype URI can send an IM as well as initiate audio and video calls. It is not as robust as the desktop API, which enables a broad range of applications such as call recording. However, the desktop API predates the mobile revolution, and Microsoft evidently feels the time is right for a single approach to app integration. Third-party apps will now work through the Skype application via the URI, eliminating the need to certify separate third-party applications in the App Directory.
For a decade, Skype itself has been a separate, stand-alone application. However, Microsoft has been busy blurring the boundaries. Skype is now deeply enmeshed into Windows (Pro/RT/Phone 8). A limitation of the URI approach is that the Skype application must first be installed, but Microsoft is effectively eliminating that risk. Skype is also integrated with Lync, enabling the seamless passing of IM and audio calls. Put it all together, and Skype may be pretty hard to avoid.
If Microsoft and third parties heavily utilize Skype URIs for real-time communications, then Skype and WebRTC begin to look fairly similar to end users. WebRTC promises ubiquity via the browser, but still doesn't have support from Apple or Microsoft. Conversely, Skype clients are available today on Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Kindle, smart TV's, X-Box, and the PlayStation. Additionally, Skype beats WebRTC today with:
* Huge installed user base today (299 million users)
* Directory of users
* Native PSTN (and SIP) capabilities
* 100s of millions of Skype-enabled mobile devices.
* Native integration with an enterprise calling platform (Lync).
WebRTC can still claim an advantage with openness, but realistically, open hasn't been the winning bet in communications. Simplicity, ubiquity, and support seem to trump open in most contests.
Neither Microsoft nor Skype will actually stop WebRTC. It is inevitable that the browser will support real-time communications without plugins. However, Skype could steal its momentum. This year, Skype will deliver a considerable amount of what WebRTC promises. Conceivably, even competitive UC solutions could initiate calls over Skype with a single click.
Skype is positioned as the universal communications service that is Web-friendly, high-definition, device-friendly, ubiquitous, and global.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.