What will Happen when iOS Webviews Adopt WebRTC?

May 12, 2016

The real benefits of Apple and WebRTC has been left out of the conversations.

Can you help Apple find WebRTC?
Can you help Apple find WebRTC?

There’s been too much chatter recently about Apple adding WebRTC. I am definitely in the opinion of Fippo here:

Things are going wild on the twitter #webrtc tag. Not a day without someone writing about Apple and WebRTC. Usually with little actual information.

I am not one to say I have inside information – I don’t. I don’t even know personally any Apple employee.

What I can say for sure, is that the real discussion on why Apple is important in the ecosystem of WebRTC has been ignored – as does the only place that is important.

Apple can add WebRTC in 3 places:

  1. Safari on Mac OS X
  2. Safari on iOS
  3. Webview on iOS

Just as a point of reference, when Google adopted WebRTC, it added it to Chrome on the desktop, then to Chrome on Android and somewhat later to Android webview. Not surprisingly, the priorities were decided based on the complexity and risk of the tasks (from the “easiest” to the most complex).

WebRTC in Mac OS X Safari

Safari on Mac OS X is nice, but at this point it won’t matter much. For the most part, Chrome is the leading browser these days – surpassing even IE; and from asking around, it seems that Mac users are used to switching from Safari to Chrome when needed – it isn’t unheard of.

Adding support for WebRTC to Safari on Mac OS X is nice, but for the most part, it won’t change things in any meaningful way.

WebRTC in iOS Safari

Safari on iOS is interesting. For iOS, there’s only a single alternative today, and that’s to port WebRTC on your own and integrate it into your app.

While this works well for most use cases, there are a few edge cases where this isn’t desirable.

Here are 4 such areas:

#1 – Porn

I had an interesting discussion two years ago with a porn vendor who wanted to start exploring WebRTC as a long term solution and a migration path from Flash.

Their main concern was that porn viewers were migrating from the desktop to their smartphones. I guess it has something to do with phone use in restrooms.

Surprisingly (or not), the main reason for him to want WebRTC was iOS. Applications on iOS require to be puritan apps to a large degree. If an app’s content doesn’t abide to the app store submission rules (and porn doesn’t), then the app won’t get approved. This becomes a kind of a headache if what you do is serve porn.

There are two ways to “fix” that today, both run in the browser (Safari on iOS that is):

  1. Use HLS to stream the video, but the latency wasn’t good for this vendor. He needed low latency. In his words, “the viewer needs to be able to interact with the performer and tell her what to do”. Apparently, waiting 20 or 30 seconds until the performer responds to the viewer’s whims isn’t fast enough
  2. Capture JPEG images and send them over HTML as if they are video. It means 3 frames per second or something just as stupid, but it seems porn viewers are happy with it. At least to some extent

Having WebRTC in Safari for iOS means no need to go through the approval process of Apple’s App Store, something impossible for such companies.

As you might have guessed, I learned a lot in the meeting with that company.

#2 – Click to dial

There are times when WebRTC is used for customers and potential customers to reach out to the vendor. They happen to search the internet, bump into your travel agency, and want to make a call to book a flight. Or they might have bumped into an issue with the toaster they purchased and want to ask for assistance. Whatever the case is, that person has no inclination to install an app on his phone just to make that one time interaction.

WebRTC on Safari’s iOS means that this is possible now to achieve for iOS users – and not only the Android ones.

#3 – Guest Access

In many cases, there’s a UC (Unified Communication) system already in use. While its focus is in employees communicating with each other, these systems also allow for guest access. Think of joining one of them GoToMeeting or WebEx sessions. First thing you do in them is install a client to be able to do them – or fumble around with a phone number and a PIN code. Both ugly practices.

WebRTC enables to leave that behind by sending the guest a URL in his email – not a URL with instructions in it, or an installation link – but a URL to the actual session. Along the way, you can also make that URL unique per participant if you wish. This is already available today – unless you use an iOS device.

#4 – Gaming (the gambling kind)

Apple takes 30% of all purchases made through apps. 30%

Gambling and booking usually work on profit margins that are usually lower than 10%.

That being the case, how, if at all, can they make money out of gamblers using apps without letting them pay through the app? The whole idea of gambling is the reduction of friction.

Now, getting gamblers to open a URL and play from there, with whatever interactivity they wish to add through the use of WebRTC – that’s a useful capability.

WebRTC in iOS Webview

This is where things get really interesting.

As stated earlier, most consumption on mobile today is done via apps. For WebRTC, most of these apps are developed as native apps. This happens for a couple of reasons:

  1. Force of habit. That’s just life as we know it today
  2. Native tends to work slightly better than HTML5 apps
  3. WebRTC dictates porting it and wrapping it as an SDK on iOS today

While native is great, HTML5 is even better. It offers cross platform development capabilities across desktop, browser and mobile – and in them, across ALL operating systems. WebRTC isn’t there yet because Apple isn’t there yet.

Add to that the new technique behind PWA (Progressive Web Applications), and you may well find HTML5 enticing for your service. To support such a thing, WebRTC on iOS isn’t enough, but it is still needed. What got this piece of technology into my radar was this write up by Henrik Joreteg – Why I switched to Android after 7 years of iOS. It goes into detail on the user experience of PWAs.

Even if you decide to stick to native development, having WebRTC implemented, optimized and fine tuned by Google and Apple for their respective mobile operating systems and then just slapping a Webview in place to use them in your app is a worthwhile investment.

Will Apple add WebRTC to its products? Probably yes

Do we know when will it happen? No

Should we prepare for it? Maybe. You tell me


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  1. Good Article Tsahi,
    The problem with iOS is not limited to puritan considerations, but reaches out even to operational aspects (when Apple changes frequently their policies within AppStore) – such as their decision to omit any 32bit applications from the store (whether uploading new ones or maintaining existing ones, already approved), and vendors are required to invest considerably on the maintenance of “gadgets” which many times only serve as a “side dish” to their main courses; no doubt that WebRTC would make life easier to a lot of folks…

    1. Ariel,

      Do I sense a bit of frustration hidden somewhere in there? I have no alternative but to agree with you on this one.

      That said, modern browsers are also harsh and force web developers to keep up with the pace – especially when it comes to WebRTC. The main difference I guess is that there’s more openness in most browsers today than in Apple policies.

  2. Apple has to add WebRTC support to WKWebView, it is needed for very good purposes. Apple can create a separate control like WKWebViewRTC which is accessing a specific URL (base URL) which should not be changed and App store team can verify its contents.

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