When MailChimp and Whatsapp Saw WebRTC

March 26, 2015

They didn’t think of voice or video chat sessions. And neither should you.

WebRTC enables developers to add voice and video chat sessions to their websites. This capability, especially the video one, hides some real gems in WebRTC – ones that enable additional unrelated capabilities. One such capability is the getUserMedia API in WebRTC that gives a JavaScript developer access to the user’s camera and microphone.

Let’s see how two vendors are using these capabilities


MailChimp is an email marketing service for users to send email newsletters. As such, it has little to do with voice and video communications. I have been using it for my own needs for the past two years and was pretty surprised when I saw it made use of WebRTC.

Under the profile settings section of the service, a user can update his profile picture (not that I understand for what purpose). At MailChimp, they enable to upload an image in the same way that many other services on the web enable, but they also allow users to take a picture of themselves using their webcam. To achieve that from inside a web browser, they make use of WebRTC’s getUserMedia API.

To get over the non-supporting browsers, MailChimp simply decided to not show the option of taking a photo. You can see this in the screenshots below, comparing the Profile settings page of MailChimp on Chrome versus MailChimp on Internet Explorer:

MailChimp profile - Chrome vs IE


Until recently, Whatsapp was a mobile only service that existed solely as a mobile app. That has changed with the introduction of Whatsapp’s web interface, available at https://web.whatsapp.com/. The web interface works great and has most of the functionality available in its mobile application.

While the most obvious thing to do with WebRTC for Whatsapp would have been to introduce VoIP calling (something I’ve suggested in the past), it took the approach of adding other functions first – mainly the ability to take photos via the webcam and capture voice messages.

Think about it. A messaging service, focused on communications, with rumors abundant on plans to introduce VoIP – and they use WebRTC to gain access to the camera and the speakers of your laptop. Nothing more.

The end result? Users get the same experience they expect from Whatsapp on their mobile directly from their desktop browser.

In Whatsapp’s case, the challenge of browser support with WebRTC was overcome by ignoring non-supporting browsers. Whatsapp web interface launched first on Chrome only, and is now also available on Firefox and Opera. Missing are Internet Explorer and Safari – the two browsers that don’t support WebRTC yet.

And that’s even BEFORE we’re talking about the upcoming VoIP capabilities in Whatsapp.

Why is this important?

WebRTC enables a lot more than just voice and video interactions. The data channel, not covered here, allows sending arbitrary data directly between browsers. WebRTC offers access to the camera and microphone.

Many vendors tend to neglect the non-video-chat capabilities of WebRTC and that is a mistake. When thinking of WebRTC, make sure you take note of all of its capabilities

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  1. Don’t forget that having Chrome or Firefox is not the only requirement for using the WhatsApp web client. The mobile app also has to support it in order to establish a link to the web app. The iOS app currently doesn’t support which means all iPhone users are unable to use the web client.

  2. I am interested in browsers apps and WebRTC however as we move more mobile is it a solution to a problem that we no-longer have, I understand the possibility say of Whatsapp getting used by business may require a desktop application however as this is heavily reliant on JavaScript and even possibly very resource heavy maybe a browser based application is the wrong route.

    1. Andrew,

      Not sure what you base your analysis on. Most companies who launch mobile apps and mobile first services that require real time communication these days do so by using WebRTC. JavaScript or not, this technology is useful on mobile.

    1. While unrelated to this article, I’ll try to answer it.

      As far as I know, Whatsapp hasn’t yet publicly opened their APIs to everyone. Once they will, this will probably be possible. It will probably require the Whatsapp user to first approve you as a contact, which in itself may be challenging.

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