Cloud communications vendor Twilio is adding another dimension to WebRTC, with the addition of video support and the promise to provide all the necessary backend components for its 500,000-strong developer community.
WebRTC, or real-time communications, promises to turn any browser or mobile app into a communications platform, letting users click-to-call directly from the site or app. It's an exciting proposition for many companies wanting to offer integrated customer care and video chat, but it takes a lot more work than just slapping the WebRTC protocol in an app. Developers have to assign a signaling plane and build or partner for the infrastructure to support authentication, interoperability and quality of service.
As such, a number of companies -- including wireless operators -- are taking different approaches to providing all these missing pieces beyond WebRTC. Two years ago, Genband Inc. launched a gateway, SpiDR, that sits at the network edge to connect web companies to operator networks. More recently, the Matrix.org non-profit was formed to build an industry standard signaling plane and, separately, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) has said it will support WebRTC via its own infrastructure and application programming interface (API). Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Voxbone SA and others still are working to fill in the infrastructure around WebRTC. (See Startup Takes WebRTC Through the Matrix, AT&T Opens up WebRTC API, Voxbone Tweaks Its Network for WebRTC and Genband Builds a Gateway to WebRTC.)
Now Twilio Inc. (NYSE: TWLO) is taking a crack at it too, but with the added advantage of already supporting voice WebRTC for thousands of developers. It has delivered nearly 1 billion minutes of WebRTC voice service since 2012, and adding video support is a critical next step. (See WebRTC & the Rise of the WebCo.)
To add video, the company is using WebRTC, but also offering its own low-latency infrastructure for signaling, registration, network traversal and global media routing. Twilio has 28 data centers in seven regions around the world, along with new client-side software development kits (SDKs) optimized for iOS and Android that expose its RTC mobile media plane to developers.
Twilio Video, now in a private Beta, will work on Android, iOS and any supported browsers and includes the capability to make multi-party video calls with up to four peer-to-peer connections, support for incoming or outgoing calls, the ability to switch back and forth between voice and video and to make calls across firewalls by using Twilio's data centers where peer-to-peer connections are unavailable.
"The way I like to think about is WebRTC is, it's the API for getting access to the web camera and microphone, like the print-to-driver on a PC," Al Cook, Twilio product marketing manager, explains. "It gives you access, but it does nothing more than access. This gives you all the pieces that WebRTC is missing to complete a video solution."
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Cook says developers have been asking for video for some time now, as it can be immensely helpful in any use case in which additional context is needed, such as showing a device issue rather than describing it to a customer care agent. Twilio is using WebRTC for the real-time data channel between different devices, SIP as the signaling protocol for interoperability and, Cook says, it has spent the past 18 months fine-tuning the media stack for the best possible video quality on any network -- cellular, IP or WiFi.
"That's really been the block to people adopting it in the past -- they pick up something like WebRTC, tried it on LTE and found the quality hasn't been there," Cook says. "We're focused on taking the headache away."
So far, Twilio has announced it's working with Zendesk to integrate the capability so its own developers can do video customer service. Cook can also envision use cases ranging from insurance providers letting their customers video call in from their app to show details of their home or auto claim to real estate agents giving virtual tours of home over video to whatever else developers can think up.
From the wireless operators' perspective, any WebRTC call -- voice or video -- would just look like normal data packets on the network, and Cook says they are efficient enough to not eat up data plans. Twilio Video is, however, essentially an over-the-top service and one they may see as competitive or, if they are forward-thinking, as a potential partner to support their own WebRTC efforts.
"We can provide [developers] that infrastructure and all the investment we've done to optimize the media quality on every device, and you can integrate it with a couple of lines of code and still have control over how the user interacts with it," Cook says. "It changes it from multiple-year integration versus having a prototype up and running in less than a week."
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading