How will WebRTC affect Skype?

[Editor's note: By now you have probably heard about WebRTC, the attempt to develop a standard for incorporating IP-based communications into web browsers. Does it pose a threat to Skype or is it simply a maturing of the Internet infrastructure? Phil Wolff recently made some comments in a Skype Group chat we both follow; I asked him to flesh out his points for a post. Here goes...]

WebRTC.Logo  How will WebRTC affect Skype?I live in the browser. So do you.

Skype’s been keen on the browser for a long time. They supported a java browser widget that talked to your desktop Skype client. They’ve released several browser toolbars that did fun things like turn phone numbers on web pages into clickable links that would launch Skype calls. Their partnership with Facebook included a browser extension that enabled Facebook Chat to launch video calls. Skype’s latest desktop clients use a little browser to render chat. And this week Microsoft announced a browser plug-in to enable Outlook.com to make Skype video calls within the browser.

Whatever the technology (which changes over time) I think their instincts are right: go to the part of user experience where people want to talk and make yourself available. Email offers great context for Skype to trigger live conversations or a switch from email to IM.

Plug-ins makes sense to me right now. Skype needs to have confidence that all the parts they need are deployed across all the kinds of computers and browsers. Until WebRTC is ubiquitous and implemented in a standard-enough way, Skype needs to prepackage parts.

Skype is always up for ways to reduce friction from user experience, to increase reach, to boost dialtone, to increase usage. The technology can be inelegant so long as it helps with those goals.

Browser plug-ins should deliver dialtone better than a pure web client. They might log you into the Skype network as soon as you open you browser and keep you connected without actually opening a tab to Skype.com, Outlook.com, Lync.com, or another Microsoft property. They may also have superior alerts and notifications than an app securely isolated in a tab. What about mobile? Mobile browsers don’t support plug-ins or toolbars. Those will rely either on Skype mobile apps properly integrated (open a Skype resource with the right app) or a pure web solution.

So what does this mean competitively?

There’s a race to launch developer-ready components and Google’s ahead. So how quickly can Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the telcos launch something minimal that works? [As an aside, is there a rule somewhere that says no two browsers ever implement a standard the same way? "Working" means working on at least one but preferably all new browsers.]

A stable WebRTC standard and its execution in browsers isn’t a complete communication client. A full client includes the components we expect from a Skype client, either in plug-in form or just loaded from the web. WebRTC doesn’t come with directories, authorization, presence services, user profiles, call/chat histories, billing, device sync, etc. Or UI, for that matter. So each competitor has a lot more to do than just implement the WebRTC plumbing. They need to build apps people are willing to use. Will people adopt Skype’s new browser apps?

There’s a fight brewing for browser real estate. Why deploy plug-ins if you can just build access to your network into your browser?  Chrome will come with Google’s version of a WebRTC client (Hangouts? Voice?), IE will come with MicroSkype’s, and Mozilla will likely sit this one out for Firefox. Microsoft will offer plug-ins to Chrome and Safari and Mozilla users. Google will do the same for non-Chrome browsers.

This is a time for alliances and partnerships.

  • The standards are still not standard. Standards efforts will continue. Everyone benefits when all the WebRTC browsers, developer toolkits, and operating systems mean the same thing by WebRTC.
  • Android has its own tension between being full of Google features and offering manufacturers an independent OS. But I’m pretty sure whatever Google does will show up in a future release of Android. But Skype may have to scale up negotiations for pre-installation privileges with each of the hundreds of phone makers and distributors.
  • Microsoft’s in-house developers can build atop Skype’s browser plug-ins or Skype’s WebRTC web framework. Bing advertiser click-to-call, anyone? Talk with your Xbox friends in your browser? Outlook click-to-chat? (Oh, wait, Outlook’s not hypothetical!)

Last, the long game depends on short term adoption and building up the architecture. The long game is about empowering whole ecosystems. Google is going to offer all its advertisers the ability to live-talk enable ads (click to call, click to chat, click to watch a video), to publishers (you provide the context, your visitors will stay longer to talk), to app developers (talk as a feature). Half the Internet will be wired in. Microsoft could do the same for its ecosystem, Apple too, maybe even Amazon (book clubs?). The one with the biggest dialtone, most conversation, and largest social graph wins. 

Dan York: How WebRTC Will Fundamentally Disrupt Telecom (And Change The Internet)

 How will WebRTC affect Skype?

About Phil Wolff

Phil Wolff is strategy director at the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, a Small Data NGO. Phil's been involved in realtime communications as a blogger, reporter, industry analyst, technologist, and entrepreneur. Phil's an alum of Skype Journal, Bechtel National, LSI Logic, Wang Laboratories, Compaq Computer, and the U.S. Navy Supply Systems Command.
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