Google and WebRTC. An Interview with Niklas Blum

20/07/2017

Where are we headed with WebRTC?

Google made an interesting announcement recently. It was about WebRTC 1.0 and Google’s own commitment to it. It seems we’ve come to a point in time when WebRTC is considered a done deal and the rest are just details – getting bugs fixed and polishing its performance.

I wanted to understand a bit more where we are headed, from the point of view of the company who lead the effort up until now. So I reached out to Niklas Blum, who is leading product management for WebRTC at Google, to answer a few of my questions.

 

How is it like to manage something like WebRTC at Google?

WebRTC is an exciting project. It is one of these kind of projects that are only possible at companies like Google and a few other places when you think of scale and impact of the technology. We started about 6 years ago as an open source project in Chrome and now WebRTC is providing the stack for an ecosystem for real-time communication services on Web. From a product management perspective there are tons of requirements impacting the platform – ranging from enterprise multi-party communications to p2p video calling on bad networks and even streaming services. It’s a very challenging and exciting time, with so many opportunities to further evolve the product.

 

What metrics do you use to gauge WebRTC’s success?

We have very practical metrics like number of API requests and amount of media/data being consumed in Chrome from users that opt-in to share this data with us. From a product perspective, I like to measure the impact of the technology on the Internet. You are tracking for example the number of projects and services that build with WebRTC. The latest update I got from you was around 1200 projects and companies. I think this is a great metric reflecting the success of WebRTC and the impact we achieved by open sourcing it.

 

You recently made an announcement in discuss-webrtc around WebRTC 1.0. Why now?

We have reaching our goal of having all the standards defined, and the technology is now stable enough for everyone to use. The web-based RTC ecosystem is becoming mature as more and more services that build on top of WebRTC are getting massive reach.

With Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Safari supporting WebRTC, about 80% of all installed browsers globally have now WebRTC build in. This is a big milestone for us as we are achieving our initial goal of making audio and video available in all browsers, through a uniform standardized set of APIs. Additionally, formerly application-focused communication services are transitioning towards the Web platform and adopting WebRTC.

We believe that interoperability between different WebRTC browsers is now of key importance to continue growing the adoption of WebRTC. It’s also of key importance to provide stability and a common ground to services and companies for continue growing a user base and eventually a flourishing business.

 

6 years in. What would you say worked great with WebRTC and what needs some improvement?

Our original mission to bring secure p2p real-time communication to the web has become real. This by itself is major contribution to the Web platform and the team is incredibly proud of this achievement. Our current efforts can be split into two main categories:

  1. Finalize the specs in Chrome
  2. Provide enterprise-grade reliability

We are working very hard on performance and to iron out remaining reliability issues in Chrome to make WebRTC the solution of choice for enterprise-grade communication services. These efforts address bugs like missing audio-input from the microphone or when the the camera is not detected. We are also getting close to launching a completely new echo canceller in Chrome for desktop. This should significantly improve the call quality when no headset is used on various devices. Additionally, we have major projects aiming at removing glitches in the audio and video capture and rendering processes. We are porting these time and resource critical processes to Mojo, a new process framework in Chrome. This will allow us to have a much better real-time performance in Chrome.

 

Looking 2 years ahead. What should we expect to see coming to WebRTC? AV1? Support for AR? …

Google is a founding member AOMedia and very active in defining the AV1 bitstream. Once AV1 is finalized we will start work on adding it to WebRTC. AR/VR/Mixed Reality is a completely new technology space with the potential to change how we consume services and media fundamentally. But the platform and overall product/market-fit is still unclear. But adding AR/VR functionality to WebRTC is definitely an interesting idea.

An interesting opportunity for evolving WebRTC is to replace RTP with QUIC. Experimenting with QUIC as media transport protocol could reduce the transport-layer protocol overhead and provide integrated congestion control. We also consider using QUIC for the DataChannel that is being used a lot by p2p CDNs for content distribution. Generally, we believe that there are still quite a few opportunities for reinventing real-time communications.

Looking a bit further ahead, a new mobile network generation (5G) is emerging. Which role WebRTC will play here still needs to be identified. But generally, having more bandwidth and lower latency available will open the door to explore video resolutions >4K and massive parallel connections. Additionally, having new software-defined networking functionality exposed to the application-layer seems to be an interesting option to improve real-time communication services. It will be very interesting to see the opportunities for WebRTC here.

 

During your time as the product manager of WebRTC at Google. What was the thing that surprised you the most?

I am still surprised every day by the creativity of developers building great services on top of WebRTC and the value those provide to users. A company called Qbtech, for example, uses WebRTC in a product that assess symptoms of ADHD. While traditional methods for assessing ADHD typically use subjective rating scales from physicians, Qbtech provides objective measurements by analyzing motion tracking over video. After implementing WebRTC, they went from specialized hardware to a web application that could run on a normal computer — opening up access to this technology to smaller clinics, schools, and even rural providers that might not have the resources for more specialized solutions.

Of course, there are many other great services that use WebRTC, but it’s this kind of out of the box thinking to apply WebRTC beyond its original audio/video calling use case and the value that is created by it that always surprises me.

How can developers contribute to WebRTC?

We have received thousands of user feedback reports and feature requests in the WebRTC and Chromium trackers from the growing WebRTC developer community. This feedback has been extremely valuable to improve WebRTC overall and especially to make it more stable for production usage. Generally, developers can provide feedback at bugs.webrtc.org by filing bugs or feature requests. And if you want to do more – you can become contributors and help us polishing the codebase – either as an individual or a company.

 

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