WebRTC is a web protocol that promises to turn any browser into a voice and video calling platform without the need for a plugin, but at least one group thinks it will never be more than a series of lonely islands without a standardized signaling plane.
The need for standardized signaling has been debated since Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) first introduced WebRTC in 2011. It defined the media plane, but purposefully left the signaling plane, or how the call connection is made, up to the application. That means that some apps use SIP; some use REST; some use proprietary signaling protocols. (See WebRTC & the Rise of the WebCo and Microsoft's Skype Embraces WebRTC on IE.)
To be clear, many don't see this a problem because they prefer existing protocols or actually want to build proprietary apps. But, with disparate signaling protocols in use by all, interoperability between WebRTC apps will remain a challenge. That's an issue that Matrix.org is hoping to fix, so it's formed a non-profit, open source startup to connect any and all WebRTC apps. (See Decoding WebRTC's Promise & Challenges .)
Matrix wants to create a new standard signaling plane for WebRTC that is open and free for all, based on RESTful, HTTP/JSON application programming interfaces (APIs). According to Amandine Le Pape, the group's business lead, its goal is to break down the silos within the VoIP and IP messaging market to ensure any service can talk to another "over the matrix." Le Pape co-founded Matrix.org in December with Matthew Hodgson, both of whom work at Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX) building unified communications apps by day. Amdocs is providing funding for the non-profit.
"Matrix can be a solution to link the silos to give the user a specific user experience using the app but still be able to talk to someone else on a different app," Le Pape says. "The idea is that, for the end user, I don't want to have to use the app someone else is using. I use the one I prefer."
But, she stresses, Matrix is not just another aggregation app. It's a free and open source platform for developers to easily create and host their own RTC functionality or add these features to an existing app -- consumer, enterprise or Internet of Things -- using a common language for basic chat and voice communications. (See WebRTC in the Wild.)
Is there room for telcos in the Matrix?
The challenge for Matrix.org will be to get the support of companies building WebRTC that might see this standardization effort as delaying the technology from really taking off. The group is primarily targeting over-the-top providers, but it also has its eyes on telco members, who will be a tougher sell. For one thing, they have a long history with SIP and want to tie WebRTC to IMS in many cases. What's more, some are participating in their own initiative unifying the signaling plane for WebRTC, Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) Open Project ORCA for Open Real-Time Communications APIs, although that has been slow to progress. (See Ericsson Offers Bowser, OpenWebRTC as Open Source, First ORCA Sighting Expected in Q4 and Killer Apps Meet Killer Whale: ORCA Opens Up.)
Hodgson says Matrix is in the early stages of talking to telcos about joining the ecosystem, and he thinks they are smart to play nice with OTTs, something they haven't done willingly in the past. He explains:
- The way we see it, there is the telco side where it's a certain network and its IMS and PBX interchanges and the PSTN. It has guaranteed quality of service, billing relationships, SIM cards -- all these great things that make the PSTN as robust and ubiquitous as it is today. On the other side you have the Internet, which is complementary. You still have a paywall that is down the middle with PSTN and IMS on one side and the Internet on the other side. Who is best positioned to build the paywall and charge Matrix users that want to talk to the PSTN for sending and receiving phone calls? It will be the telcos that can run those gateways, provide phone number services and provide voice termination.
Some telcos are already wading in with WebRTC, in general. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), for one, became the first telco to offer a WebRTC API for developers to build related apps with at its developers conference in January, using existing signaling infrastructure -- most likely SIP -- and offering the ability to extend voice and video calls to landlines and mobile phones, not just browser-to-browser, as well as to have caller ID over the browser. (See AT&T Opens up WebRTC API.)
But Hodgson says it's proprietary to AT&T's network, so it doesn’t solve the federation problem. Adding Matrix as a subset of its API would make it interoperable, he says, and AT&T could still differentiate through offering payments, which is something Matrix doesn't yet cover. (See WebRTC: A Double-Edged Sword for Telcos and What WebRTC Means for Telcos.)
It may be a long road, but Matrix is hitting the ground running. Only a couple of weeks into its beta, the group plans to announce its first partnerships at Mobile World Congress next month, and Hodgson says it has a couple thousand users and 60 servers participating already, including big, well-known companies and "smaller, snappier" startups that he says are all looking to "reclaim communications on the Internet for themselves."
"We are fairly unique in what we're trying to do," he says, "and it's as fundamental as the web or email to create an open source ecosystem on the Internet."
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading