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WebRTC, Web 3.0 & Telephony’s Last Chance

A couple weeks ago at the WebRTC Paris show, W3C Chairman Dominique Hazaël-Massieux talked about how WebRTC is changing the Web. We hear a lot about how WebRTC will change telephony, but we never hear about how WebRTC is changing the Web, so I found his perspective extremely interesting. His comments made me realize that WebRTC presents a rare, actionable opportunity for the telephony crowd to regain much of the relevance it has lost in the vast sea of mobile and Web applications.

The Web We Know
Let's start with a quick recap on how we got to now.

The W3C, or World Wide Web Consortium for those of you who aren't familiar with this standard-setting organization, built the Web on a client-server, request-response model using HTTP and HTML. This simple model was very good for showing you a static page of text with a picture or two. Realistically this was all your modem would have been able to support at that time -- the early '90s -- anyway.

Then broadband came along in the 2000s and the Web became a lot more media-oriented and dynamic, the latter thanks to Ajax and other hacks to the request-response model. Most call this stage Web 2.0, during which we saw the rise of social networks and the adoption of the Web as a personal, integrated part of our lives.

Web 2.0 spawned the development of content delivery networks (CDN), which helped providers keep up with the increasing media load. JavaScript, for writing dynamic, browser-based applications, evolved from a nice way to do some tricks in a few of the more advanced websites to the predominant, near-mandatory way to write Web pages. Java, Flash and other vendor-backed technologies that provided missing capabilities are now falling way to open, standardized Web techniques. In the beginning the Web competed with other Internet services, including email, Internet Relay Chat and file-sharing services. Web 2.0 subsumed most of these services.

So where are we now?

I have yet to come across an official definition of Web 3.0, but the Web continues to change substantially. Mobile is becoming the predominant usage model, and critical mobile functions like GPS location, device orientation, push notifications and many more are driving new Web standards. The browser model competes with native mobile apps, but the back-end communications to the network are almost always Web oriented and use HTTP. As highlighted earlier, the Web is much more than serving HTML Web pages in a browser and extends to the mobile app domain too. Machine-to-machine and the Internet of Things will continue to drive new Web requirements.

WebRTC & Web 3.0
portable
WebRTC differs from other Web technologies in that it is a peer-to-peer, not client- server, technology. Web content, while dynamically displayed, is stored statically. The Web is real time and ephemeral -- you can't queue it and optimize its delivery ex post facto.

Peer-to-peer, real-time communications (RTC) is novel for the Web and has big implications for the client-server, request-response CDNs deployed to optimize the user experience for the Web model. They do nothing for real-time, peer-to-peer traffic. Upstream traffic coming from users' HD cameras also upsets the usual heavy downstream-to-upstream ratios typical of most Web services -- i.e., when you watch Netflix you are sending a small amount of command traffic across the network in exchange for a large amount of streaming media.

I was most surprised to hear Hazaël-Massieux mention "interacting with network control" as the Web's next frontier. Telcos have long advocated for their quality-of-service (QoS) based networks at a price, but few of the newer Internet-based RTC providers have fully gone this route. Instead, most have opted to use many of the Web technology hacks for making RTC work in a network-unaware environment.

It was telling to hear him admit that optimizing the user experience in a peer-to-peer, real-time environment requires a symbiotic relationship with the network. Networks need traffic to justify their existence -- the Web has been providing that, but this was the first time I heard "the Web" admit it needs the network.

The Web Needs You
Now for my perspective on what all this means.

The challenges of real-time telephony and the concept of application-network synchronization Hazaël-Massieux mentioned are not new for the VoIP crowd. We have been dealing with them for 15 years or more. The telecom community has built hundreds of IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) networks for end-to-end QoS-controlled RTC. The enterprise telephony community invested billions in building its own controlled, largely closed, unified communications (UC) networks. All these networks essentially started as walled gardens that competed with the Web model.

Meanwhile, the Web -- with its millions of sites and apps -- has continued to grow. This growth has been at the expense of the telephony market in terms of usage, mindshare and investment. The traditional telephony community's recent services have not gone viral in the way of Web-based apps. Now, with WebRTC, the Web threatens to eat telephony just as the Web has come to dominate nearly all other forms of communication.

So is WebRTC a threat or a savior for telephony? Will the telephony community be consumed by the Web or transformed by it?

I see WebRTC as a much needed lifeline for the existing telephony community. It is a rare chance to reset from past mistakes and get back on the prosperous path. Telephony has a new chance to extend and enhance its value proposition by working with the Web this time, instead of against it. Remarks like those from Hazaël-Massieux indicate the Web camp wants to work with us on figuring out WebRTC together. It doesn't have to be a battle of us vs. them. We can mutually benefit by working together instead of against each other (which is probably a losing battle for telephony anyway).

Telephony people, the Web needs help making WebRTC work. It needs your networks and expertise. It wants you to join the crew. You have the acumen, but do you have the stomach to admit your wrongs and join the winning team?

I sincerely hope so.

Hart is senior director of product marketing for Dialogic.

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