Reuters: With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

Something I wrote for Reuters: 

With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Thu Dec 11, 2014 4:07pm EST

(Reuters) – WebRTC, a free browser-based technology, looks set to change the way we communicate and collaborate, up-ending telecoms firms, online chat services like Skype and WhatsApp and remote conferencing on WebEx.

Web Real-Time Communication is a proposed Internet standard that would make audio and video as seamless as browsing text and images is now. Installed as part of the browser, video chatting is just a click away – with no need to download an app or register for a service.

WebRTC allows anyone to embed real-time voice, data and video communications into browsers, programs – more or less anything with a chip inside. Already, you can use a WebRTC-compatible browser like Mozilla’s Firefox to start a video call just by sending someone a link.

Further ahead, WebRTC could add video and audio into all kinds of products and services, from GoPro cameras and educational software to ATMs and augmented reality glasses. Imagine, for example, wanting to buy flowers online and being able, at a click, to have the florist demonstrate arrangements to you live via a video link.

WebRTC will be a market worth $4.7 billion by 2018, predicts Smiths Point Analytics, a consultancy. Dean Bubley, a UK-based consultant, reckons over 2 billion people will be using WebRTC by 2019, some 60 percent of the likely Internet population.

Most of these will be mobile. Some versions of Amazon’s Kindle multimedia tablet, for example, have a ‘Mayday’ button which launches a WebRTC-based video call with a customer service representative.

By the end of the decade, consultants Analysys Mason reckon there will be 7 billion devices supporting WebRTC, nearly 5 billion of them smartphones or tablets. Automatic voice and video encryption means web conversations should be safe from eavesdropping or external recording.


“The promise is fantastic,” said Alexandre Gouaillard, chief technology officer at Singapore start-up Temasys. “There’s always a problem with timing, between dream and reality.”

Initially championed by Google, WebRTC was adopted by Mozilla and Norway’s Opera Software – between them accounting for more than half of the world’s browsers. In October, Microsoft committed to including a version of WebRTC on its Internet Explorer browser, leaving only Apple as the main holdout. An Apple spokesperson declined to discuss the company’s plans for WebRTC in detail.

Last month, technical experts agreed a compromise on a key sticking point: which of two encoding standards to use to convert video. All sides agreed to support both for now.

Some prominent names are staking out the WebRTC arena.

Skype co-founder Janus Friis this month launched Wire, a chat and voice messaging app that uses WebRTC, and Ray Ozzie, who created Lotus Notes and was chief software architect at Microsoft, is challenging messaging and conferencing services with Talko, an app using WebRTC. Mozilla has teamed up with U.S.-based TokBox to launch Hello, a plug-in-free, account-free web conferencing service within its Firefox browser.

Dozens of mobile apps already leverage WebRTC – including Movirtu’s WiFi-based CloudPhone, allowing voice calls over WiFi. Movirtu CEO Carsten Brinkschulte says WebRTC “gives us a lot of things that are free that are normally very hard to do.”


This makes some incumbents nervous. One is the $2 billion web and video conferencing industry. And telecoms firms are still reeling from free voice and messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype. Even those companies look vulnerable as WebRTC reduces the cost of setting up a competing service.

“WebRTC is a magnifier,” says Bubley, the consultant. “It makes the opportunities bigger and the threats worse, and everything faster.”

Some, though, are putting up a fight.

Microsoft is rolling out a web-based version of Skype that will, eventually, require no extra software and will be compatible with all WebRTC browsers. And Cisco, whose WebEx is king of web-based video conferencing, has been active in developing standards. But, says Bubley, “it’s in no desperate rush to accelerate.”

Among telecoms companies, Telefonica bought TokBox “to learn about the space, and they’ve largely left us to pursue that,” said TokBox CEO Scott Lomond. SK Telecom and NTT Docomo are also experimenting with the technology.

But those championing WebRTC say the technology isn’t so much about challenging what’s available today, but more about creating opportunities for new products and services tomorrow.

Cary Bran, vice president at Plantronics, a headset maker, sees a time when online gamers won’t just be able to see and talk to each other, but feed heart-rate and other sensor data into the game, “making it more difficult or easy based on the user’s level of engagement.”

More prosaically, TokBox is working with banks in the United States and Europe to provide branch visitors with video links to specialists, cutting down on staffing costs.

Such options, says TokBox’s Lomond, only scratch the surface of what’s possible. “I don’t think the broader market has fully appreciated how potentially disruptive this is,” he says.

Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global

Viki has long interested me and their deal with Warner offered a news peg: 

Who would want to watch a South Korean soap that was a flop back home?

Lots of people, it turns out – something that Singapore-based startup Viki feels vindicates its business model: an ad-supported streaming TV and movie site where unpaid fans add the foreign subtitles.

“We call it content arbitrage,” said Razmig Hovaghimian, Viki CEO and co-founder. “Ninety percent of content is trapped within borders. We’re taking things that aren’t travelling and making them go places.”

The service plays on a number of trends both in Asia and worldwide: a passion for watching video over the Internet; a growing interest in content from other countries; and the emergence of more sophisticated software to spread the burden of laborious tasks like subtitling.

Viki provides a platform that pulls together two traditional strangers: broadcasters and other video producers who license out content to territories where there are no existing rights with local broadcasters, and volunteer “fansubbers” who translate and write subtitles in any language they want.

Viki then inserts ads and provides the streaming service, and shares the ad revenue with the broadcasters.

Take, for example, that Korean flop, “Playful Kiss”. Ratings sank below 5 percent when it was aired during primetime in Korea in 2010, says Hovaghimian, when a top drama might capture up to 30 percent of viewers. But on Viki it topped the site’s charts for several months and was translated into 56 languages.

The company behind the show made “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in ad revenue and was able to secure rebroadcast deals with 10 countries it would otherwise never have reached, Hovaghimian said. The broadcaster wasn’t eating into existing audiences, it was finding value in new ones. “We’re increasing the size of the pie for you, we’re not cannibalizing,” he says.

Rest of the story: Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global | Reuters

Portable Media Centers: Damp Squibs?

How big are Portable Media Centers going to be?

Not very, says The Diffusion Group, a Dallas-based research consultancy. In a report it says both Microsoft-based and non-MS-based media players with video, audio and photo capabilities will “face stiff competition from less-expensive application-specific alternatives such as MP3 players, portable DVD players, and new portable photo storage technologies”.

Partly it’s price: “while PMCs offer consumers an ‘all-in-one’ package, its $500 price tag will make single application devices much more attractive to consumers,” Diffusion says. The other limitation is: Do people really want all this stuff? Given the main attraction of a PMC is storing and playing back video, and given that most folk still don’t use handheld video recorders (I’m guessing PVR here means portable or personal video recorders) as much as expected, “demand for a portable PVR is likely to remain very low for the next several years.” Then, says Diffusion, there are alternatives: Portable TVs are cheap, and the more fancy high end stuff, like Sony’s new LF-X5 with its live digital TV viewing with integrated Wi-Fi connectivity and a 7-inch viewing screen, are going to get cheaper.

I respectfully disagree. I don’t think everyone who has an iPod is going to get a PMC. But you only need to sit on a Virgin Atlantic flight and watch people tap into their fully independent video-on-demand (select programs, stop and start, fast forward and rewind) screens to see the power of portable video. Just because people aren’t using their PVRs as much as we expected, doesn’t mean they don’t want to watch video everywhere they go. And while personal TVs may satisfy some of this market, what is that compared to being able to store a few episodes of Seinfeld to watch on the train to work? If we’ve learned nothing else from MP3 players, we’ve realised that people want to design and personalise their portable entertainment. If not, everyone would still be carrying around portable radios. As prices drop — even Diffusion anticipates that the price of portable media centers will decline by more than 50% to below $250 in a couple of years — I think there’ll be more and more people packing these things.

News: DVDs Go To Eight GB

 Soon you can burn more than 8 gigabytes onto a DVD. Technology co-developed by drive maker Philips and media specialists Verbatim and Mitsubishi Kagaku, adds a second recording layer to a standard-thickness DVD+R disc The Register reports. That’s enough for four hours of DVD-quality material, 16 hours of VHS-quality content or two hours’ archive footage. The discs are playback-compatible with existing DVD players and DVD-ROM drives.