XO Communications' Blog

Are You Ready for the Browser Makeover?

[ 0 ] April 9, 2012 | By

What is one of the most ubiquitous user communication devices? If you said Web browser you’d be right. Consider the following global statistics.[1]  In 2011:

– Fixed and mobile connections reached 7 billion worldwide.

– Approximately 6 billion Mobile subscriptions and 1 billion fixed wireline phones.

– 1.2 billion Mobile Web Users, 0.6 billion fixed broadband subscriptions.

– 0.5 billion smart phones shipped in 2011.

– In U.S. and western Europe 90% of mobile subscribers have Internet-ready phones.

Every smart phone or tablet which is shipped has a browser. Add to that the browsers that are used by other devices (e.g. laptops, desktops, game consoles) makes the browser the new de facto user interface.

Several smart folks are currently developing standards to equip the browser with real-time interactive communications capabilities in an initiative called Web RTC (Web Real Time Communication). This is an effort to achieve a standardized infrastructure in Web browsers on which real-time interactive communication between users of the World Wide Web can be achieved. Web RTC offers web application developers the ability to write rich, real-time multimedia applications on the Web, without requiring plug-ins, downloads or installs. Its purpose is to help build a strong RTC platform that works across multiple web browsers and across multiple platforms.

The browser – which has opened to all of us a window into the World Wide Web of knowledge, community, commerce and entertainment –  is getting some major capabilities added.  Today, from any browser (Chrome, IE, Firefox, Safari, Webkit etc.) you can pretty much access anything on the Web, although there are still a few differences between browser behaviors. Initially, a browser would get a page loaded from the web servers for some static content. Advances have been made with Javascript[2] and Ajax[3] technologies and pages with rich content, but essentially these are still in a non-real-time environment. Would it not be great if this near-universal interface can also initiate real-time interactive communications without worrying about plug-ins or device-specific and /or OS-specific clients to be loaded etc?

This effort is shared in two standards bodies: 1) a W3C (Worldwide Web Consortium)  activity to define the APIs that a Web application can use to control this communication and 2) an IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) to define the formats and protocols used to communicate between browsers. W3C working groups focus on making standardized APIs and interfaces available within or alongside the HTML5 effort. These two specifications aim to provide an environment where Javascript embedded in any page, viewed in any compatible browser, when suitably authorized by its user, is able to set up communication using audio, video and auxiliary data, where the browser environment does not constrain the types of application in which this functionality can be used.

You may be asking, “what’s new about this?”  You might be thinking, “I can make audio and video calls today from my mobile or laptop.” Of course, either of these applications are packaged by equipment vendors or users load these apps with various dependencies and interoperability issues. Now a few more details about the IETF effort.

IETF is using the traditional protocol trapezoid – two browsers needing to have real-time communication, each browser communicating with its own server, and the servers interacting with each other, perhaps using SIP. IETF is currently working on JSEP (Javascript Session Establishment Protocol) that can be used by browsers to use the offer / answer model for session establishment. This information may be carried using signaling protocol of their choice (e.g. SIP) with transport of Websockets.  JSEP intends to have the ICE (Interactive Connectivity Establishment) management in the browser but session management in the application. The choice of codecs for media focuses on royalty-free open source codecs, in addition to the standard codecs for interoperability with existing infrastructure. Teams engaged in this development are maintaining a delicate and careful balance between fostering innovation by equipment vendors / application developers  with minimum mandatory requirements while ensuring a certain assured level of interoperability. Stay tuned for more in future postings.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the ITU-standardized network-centric IMS RCS (Rich Communication Service) application which seems to be coming back to life after years of dormancy.   Some mobile equipment vendors may be packaging IMS stack in their devices and there seems to be some renewed interest in RCS.

We can all speculate what will happen. Will the industry embrace the WebRTC approach or they will continue to use proprietary native clients and plod through the interop issues? Will the network-centric IMS-RCS and the user-driven WebRTC coexist or will one will overwhelm the other? Between IMS and WebRTC,  my bet is on the latter. Internet is a shining model of scaling, flexibility, richness and “wisdom of the crowd” app development. The large installed base of browsers and its expected steep growth in the future gives it great momentum and Robert MetCalfe’s Law [4]works in its favor. This development also provides a reminder to traditional service providers of the challenge and opportunity presented by these kind of disruptive technologies, and that is to be mindful of professor Ted Levitt’s (Harvard Business School) [5]  warning about realizing what business they are in and embracing the new development.

What do you think?

 


[1] mobiThinking “Global mobile statistics 2012: all quality mobile marketing research, mobile Web stats, subscribers, ad revenue, usage, trends…”

[2] Javascript is a lightweight programming language embedded in or loaded into an HTML page that adds interactivity

[3] Asynchronous Javascript and XML , a method of exchanging data with a server, and update parts of a web page – without reloading the whole page

[4] Robert Metcalfe posits that the value of a network grows as the square of the number of users. Some scholars claim that the law overestimates.

[5] “If only the buggy whip makers had thought of themselves as being in the personal transportation business, providing a stimulant or catalyst to an energy source, Mr. Levitt wrote, they might have survived into the automotive era”. This appeared in 1960 in HBR article Marketing Myopia. Some scholars have questioned the applicability to some disruptive change scenarios

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Tags: html 5 browser, IMS, Web browser, WebRTC

Category : Communications, Industry Trends

About Ramani Pandurangan: I've spent the last ten years overseeing the architecture, design, testing and implementation of voice over IP (VoIP) technologies and platforms across the XO network. My role includes support of the company's award-winning business and wholesale VoIP services, and the transformation of the XO voice network from a circuit switched environment to one based on VoIP and softswitch platforms. I'm an active speaker and panelist in the telecommunications and networking event circuit and participate in several standards bodies including ATS and ITU. I graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Master's degree in Computer Science. I also hold a Master's in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and an MBA from McGill University. I enjoy tennis, hockey (Montreal Canadians fan), music, and Star Trek. View author profile.

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