Is WebRTC a Threat to Skype?

17 Apr 2013

A WebRTC topic that comes up fairly regularly is whether WebRTC is a threat to Skype. Many believe that WebRTC devalues Skype tremendously, thus Microsoft's commitment to WebRTC must be dubious since it recently acquired Skype for $8.5 billion. Publicly, Microsoft supports WebRTC, and is active with its development. Also, WebRTC is largely associated with Google, and these two firms often disagree about things. It isn't surprising that there are some elements of this new standard that are contested between these firms.

On one hand, it's fairly easy to conclude that WebRTC is a direct threat. WebRTC is all about real time communications including voice, video, IM, file sharing, and collaboration - areas where Skype excels. WebRTC is proposed as a free and open standard. In theory, it means users can freely communicate initially from their browsers and soon after from all kinds of devices including smartphones even televisions.

On the other hand, WebRTC is a technology - not a service or solution. Skype is far more than just technology. Skype is highly successful not just because it enables voice, IM, and video; but because it does so seamlessly. The Skype client, available across multiple platforms, offers among the highest quality in voice conversations. It has a point-and-click directory, and various levels of security and authentication that mitigates spam. It also offers PSTN interconnection for both inbound and outbound calls.

From a technical perspective, there are numerous solutions that provide IM, voice, and video, but none have attracted a user community anywhere near the size of Skype's. And that is where Skype draws so much of its power. It's an example of Metcalfe's Law, that the value of a network increases with each additional member. Despite Skype's huge size of some 300 million connected users, it's nowhere as large as every desktop and mobile browser which could be members of a future WebRTC club.

WebRTC delegates many critical aspects. For example, directory services are not included within the specification. This means that it is up to the WebRTC application to create a directory or integrate with another. Also, WebRTC does not specify signaling, SIP, or PSTN access; these two are up to the applications and servers to integrate.

This means that for WebRTC to truly take on Skype, it would need to be integrated into a mega Skype-killing application. There's nothing wrong with that theory, and from the day Skype was born it was known that just such an application would be born someday. WebRTC is not even necessarily required. Remember, Skype didn't use WebRTC, so clearly it is and was possible to build a sizeable network offering real-time communications without it. But Skype had the heavy lifting of client proliferation (and it took nearly a decade). That is where WebRTC becomes a wildcard.

This brings me to Twelephone, an intriguing application that brings WebRTC to Twitter. A user logs into Twelephone with their Twitter credentials and can then IM, voice call, or video call any other Twitter user. It doesn't matter if they follow or not. Currently, the other user must also log into Twelephone for an actual real-time conversation (to get the WebRTC application). That's pretty significant because Twitter has over 500 million users. Sure, the vast majority won't login to Twelephone, but the application also allows recording and sending secure voice messages. These recordings are tweeted to the recipient with a link to playback.

Twelephone also supports SIP so it can support bidirectional access to the PSTN. Effectively, Twelephone leverages one of the biggest messaging platforms and directories around with real time communications. Ironically, users don't even need WebRTC. Users can record and playback voice messages in Flash or Java (WebRTC is required for real time conversations).

Twelephone is a service of GetVocal, Inc. previously known for developing (and selling-off) Teleku and Nodester. With very little time or money, Twelephone shows the potential to bring an existing network, larger than Skype, real time communications with persistent IM, voice, and video. It doesn't yet support file transfer like Skype does, but it will. Peer-to-peer file transfers require WebRTC data channels currently only available in Chrome's pre-release developer version.

Yes, WebRTC does pose a risk to Skype, but not in itself. WebRTC is mere technology. Taking on Skype will require great applications with intuitive interfaces that attract huge numbers of users. But such applications/networks/groups exist and WebRTC can quickly transform them into real time communication and collaboration networks.

That said, Skype's risk and exposure is more theoretical than real. The true power of WebRTC lies in ubiquity, and it won't find itself in the majority of the world's browsers for several years - even if the standard was ratified tomorrow. Plus, the law of large numbers provides more protection. With about 300 million connected users, Skype could lose 100,000 users a day for over eight years. Factor in most people don't really care, and Skype is looking pretty darn safe.