2013 - The Year of WebRTC

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Tom Keating
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2013 - The Year of WebRTC

WebRTC has been making great strides of late. A few companies using worth checking out are bistri, Plivo, and twelephone. I'm in the process of testing bistri and twelephone, but I did actual use Plivo's proof-of-concept WebRTC offering, which I'll get into a in a moment.

First an overview of bistri and twelephone. bistri is pretty interesting because it lets you link with Facebook, Google, Windows Live, Yahoo, Jabber/XMPP, and Вконтакте. It'll pull all your contacts and their presence status and display it on their website allowing you to chat, or make a voice or video call - all within your browser using WebRTC.

I recently mentioned that Facebook could crush Skype if they implemented VoIP & video conferencing using WebRTC and just a few days later they announced a VoIP offering (Canada-only) and a voice message feature. I tested the iOS app, but wasn't entirely impressed - partly because it wasn't a WebRTC implementation. Well, bistri is HTML5 with WebRTC allowing you to make voice and video calls from your browser. bistri even lets you perform cool live video effects while in a video call. applause Gimmicky? Sure. But being able to do with using HTML5 only with WebRTC in a browser with no download is pretty amazing! Here's a screenshot of bistri running in my Chrome browser. Note my Facebook photo pulled in, and status info for my FB contacts. Click for larger view:

Now onto twelephone, which if you're a Twitter user you probably guessed already that twelephone integrates with Twitter. Chris Matthieu‏, the founder of twelephone explained to me via Twitter, why he didn't integrate with Facebook - "Since Facebook is in bed with M$ and Skype, I didn't want to go there. Twitter's a perfect identity/messaging platform." Certainly, Twitter is a very popular messaging platform, in particular amongst younger people as well as tech-savvy folks. I don't disagree with Chris on that point, but wonder if twelephone misses an opportunity to integrate with Facebook, which has a larger userbase than Twitter. I can envision teenagers on both Twitter and Facebook but parents only on Facebook, so they'd have to way to video chat with their kids using twelephone. Nevertheless, Twitter has a huge userbase and the ability to initiate a voice or video chat using your Twitter identity and WebRTC installed in your browser is very cool. Ironically, bistri doesn't have Twitter authentication, so you might say twelephone and bistri are complementary WebRTC services. Though I'd still prefer a single service that integrates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Windows Live, etc. Some of twelephone's highlighted features include:
  • HTML5 WebRTC (real-time communications)
  • High-definition audio and video sessions
  • Peer-to-peer direct communications
  • Encrypted and private communications
  • In session chat with links and emoticon support
  • Your Twitter handle is your Twelephone number
  • API and CallMe button available for your website
Lastly, we have Plivo. I spoke with Plivo CEO Venky over a Google Chrome WebRTC session. I simply went to a link on their website, clicked the button to join the conference and presto! I was talking with Plivo!

Plivo is a cloud platform to build voice & SMS applications, including IP-PBXs, ACDs, IVRs. They already supported SIP, the prevalent VoIP protocol, but now also support WebRTC, which opens the door to web-based telephony applications. The conference call I was on was around 20 lines of code. Plivo actually helped some other telephony application providers you may be familiar with, including Calliflower, run by fellow VoIP blogger, Alec Saunders.

I asked if they ran on the Amazon cloud and if they used virtual machines. Venky said, "What we realized running telephony infrastructure on virtual machines like Amazon cloud doesn't guarantee quality of service. So we run on our own dedicated servers, which is our secret sauce essentially and then we built our own stack which allows us to keep putting in more boxes and scale."

I mentioned latency issues when you virtualize and Venky said, "Absolutely. There is a lot of encoding and decoding, especially in a conference. Voice is getting mixed from so many sources and when you do this in a virtual machine, obviously there are call quality issues." Venky said they provision/de-provision dedicated server hardware from major providers such as Rackspace.

I asked how many maximum users can be in a conference. Venky said they say 200 users in a conference in their documentation but it's not limited to 200 and can scale higher to 2,000 and even 3,000 users. They support full moderator controls, mute yourself, see who's talking, etc. Conferencing is just one application you can build with Plivo. You can build an IVR, a call center, a GoToMeeting-like collaboration meeting and more. Plivo can integrate with hardphones (IP phones), softphones, landlines, PSTN, mobile, WebRTC - all using their APIs. You can also provision DIDs very easily using their APIs / SDK.

I asked about videoconferencing support and he said they are working on it, with plans to obviously support desktop IP phones, mobile phones, softphones, and WebRTC. This will allow for instance the ability to do a video call from Google Chrome to someone's desktop IP phone. FINALLY! I've been griping about incompatible videophones for 8 years! Will WebRTC and solutions providers such as Plivo be the "glue" to solve video interoperability issues.

Plivo also offers call recording, automated speech-to-text transcription, and manual/human transcription for better accuracy. Plivo told me, "Since its founding one year ago, Plivo has emerged as the most scalable and feature-rich voice and messaging platform wrapped with flexible APIs and backed by 24/7 support. Plivo provides the highest level of reliability for enterprises that need a hosted environment for their voice and messaging applications, and enables enterprises, service providers and web developers to build applications that seamlessly integrate the web with telephony, both fixed and mobile. With WebRTC support coming in early 2013, Plivo will enable true unified comms in the cloud for the first time ever. (Today, most companies using hosted telephony still maintain an on-premise SIP client, meaning they aren’t completely in the cloud.)"

Plivo has quietly signed up dozens of enterprise customers since its platform went live in July, and on Dec 3, Plivo announced a seed round of funding from investment firms Andreessen Horowitz, Battery Ventures, Qualcomm Incorporated and SV Angel.

Plivo has also built an open bridge that's basically a Proof of Concept for WebRTC - lets people make their first WebRTC call. You can try it yourself here: http://webrtc.plivo.com/ You and a friend can both join and talk to each other via WebRTC to check out the sound quality, connection speeds, etc. Other people may be on too; it's just a big open bridge right now, sort of like a party line. Go check it out and see what it's like to actually make a call via WebRTC!

These three companies are just the tip of the WebRTC iceberg, but you can see just from these three solutions providers that 2013 will indeed be the year of WebRTC! Finally, you should check out WebRTC Conference & Expo, whose inaugural conference in San Francisco was very successful. Full disclosure, this conference is run by my organization, TMC. The next one is in June in Atlanta and I hope to see you there!

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