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Why Video Won't Kill the Audio Star

On August 1,1981 at 12:01 AM, MTV burst onto the airwaves with video by New Wave group, The Buggles. MTV used their catchy pop tune, "Video Killed the Radio Star," to lament the death of radio in the tragic upheaval of new technology. There was a bit of arrogance in the choice of this particular song. The tone seemed to imply, "We are asserting our dominance as a video station, over and above radio stations that now lie cold and dead in their graves."

There was only one problem--radio wasn't dead. In fact, it is alive and kicking today. So why was MTV so wrong about radio? More importantly, are we repeating this same type of bias today between voice and WebRTC?

For MTV, the underlying assumption seemed to be that once video became available, it would always trump audio-only tech. The error in this assumption lies in misunderstanding how users actually consume music, which is predominately an auditory medium. While we all appreciate watching a live band or the occasional music video, often the visuals simply demand too much of us. Having video in front of us all of the time simply isn't feasible.

Like MTV trying to kill off the radio star, people (and industries) are sometimes eager to sound the death knell on old technologies the moment a new one arrives on the scene. Consider WebRTC, which brings with it the promise of easing video-enabled communications deployment and the potential for rapid proliferation of inexpensive, cross-platform, scalable video conferencing solutions. Will this mean the end of voice?

Not at all.

Much like the advent of music videos was misunderstood, so too is business video conferencing. Neither of these technologies will usurp their audio-only counterparts. Instead, video provides an additional mode that lives in harmony with audio rather than replacing it. Granted, this harmony may be lost on some devotees who are calling for the death of everything from desktop handsets to voice itself.

These Death Cries Remind Me of the VoIP Revolution
When Asterisk first arrived on the scene, it changed the landscape of communications. Asterisk, as a software platform, fueled the VoIP revolution as businesses rapidly shifted from proprietary hardware solutions to software-based PBX systems. Throughout this era, many predicted the death of PRI, due to SIP-based trunking technology. Asterisk itself was a key enabler of the proliferation of SIP.

The irony is that during this time, it was the selling of PRI (primary rate interface) telephony cards that funded the core development of Asterisk. Even today in 2014, PRI still isn't dead. Despite the rapid growth of SIP trunking, Asterisk-based telephony cards hold a solid presence in the marketplace. (To understand why, simply try to get a decent SIP trunk in an emerging market where Internet infrastructure is poor and the PSTN is robust.)

Like music videos, the story of PRI brings with it a lesson to learn. PRI hasn't disappeared, and many companies use PRI trunks in conjunction with SIP trunks, with each technology filling a different role based on its varied strengths. In a similar way, multi-modal access is where WebRTC really shines.

The future of business communications will involve more modes, not fewer. The idea of multi-modal communication starts to make sense if you think about the day-to-day communications you are already using. Even if you aren't making frequent use of video yet, you most likely have multiple avenues over which you can choose to communicate.

Do you spend much time in thought over whether you will send an email, phone call, IM chat or tweet @reply? Probably not. At least in my daily workflow, all of these modes are so commonplace, I simply move fluidly between them, selecting the optimal path for the desired message. Sometimes a phone call is most appropriate; sometimes it's an SMS text or a comment on a wiki or blog post. The context, the content and the recipient determine the method of delivery.

In the same way, video conferencing will become an additional option in the communications arsenal, but it won't supplant voice calling. For the moment, video is a novelty. It is the often-trumpeted killer feature of WebRTC. As such, video is getting a lot of attention, and it seems that the majority of nascent WebRTC-based apps provide peer-to-peer video as their main function. But the true power of WebRTC is its ability to handle voice, video, text and data either separately or together.

So, voice-only WebRTC communication will continue to play a role. For example, Asterisk was an early adopter of WebRTC and has incorporated native functionality since 2012. Businesses are using these capabilities to create rapid-deployment contact centers and WebRTC-to-PSTN gateways, effectively using voice-only WebRTC in any scenario in which it is called for. Likewise, video will be of great value, if it is used when appropriate.

And that's the point: voice doesn't go away with WebRTC. The utility is simply augmented by additional options. So, we can skip out on planning the funeral of voice (and radio, for that matter).

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