Can we learn from the history of email about the future of WebRTC?
There has been a lot of discussion lately about WebRTC and federation. Since WebRTC does not specify signaling, creating a WebRTC service that interoperates with other services is completely optional to the provider. This is in contrast to how the traditional telecom’s world operations, where a common signaling protocol is mandatory across every device that connect to the network. This mandatory protocol use means that, in theory, any phone can plug into any telco provider and any telco provider can talk to any other telco provider since they all can speak a common language.
With the exception of a few vendors like Hookflash and &yet, multi-site federation for WebRTC has not been a design goal of the vast majority of WebRTC startups and web-oriented companies. The telco-oriented companies have a slightly different perspective, but they do not really need WebRTC to federate since they can already do that in their networks with the PSTN.
This got me thinking – are there other examples of widely used communications services that are federated over the Internet? Is the universally federated nature of the PSTN really just an anomaly due to its unique history that dates back to the late Victorian era? Or do networks naturally want to merge due to Metcalfe’s law?
The most prevalent federated communications system on the Internet I could come up with is email. Would a federated WebRTC network end up like today’s email systems? Is this the future of the PSTN post-analog/TDM?
The PSTN certainly has a significantly longer and more complex history than email, but telephony actually has a lot in common with email. Both have a universal addressing system – phone numbers for the PSTN and the email@example.com email format. Both are globally federated – I can email anyone who has an “email address” just like I can call anyone who has a phone number.
Both are also based on principles from previous service paradigms. Today’s VoIP networks do not look anything like the analog systems from 100 years ago, yet they still use the same concepts of “calling”, “ringing”, “hang-up”, etc. Likewise, email leverages many principles of the postal system that came before it – after all, it is electronic “mail” with terms like “mailboxes”, “address”, message “envelope”, and the Post Office Protocol (POP).
Figure 1 Basic Email architecture
Figure 2 Simplified, Telco-oriented view of WebRTC federation
Email – from silos to ubiquity
Internet Email has certainly evolved. Although federated internet email started in the ARPANET days, widespread usage really began in closed corporate systems like Vax. These eventually lead to LAN based systems like Lotus Notes and Banyan VINES. Walled garden systems like CompuServe and AOL also offered email for consumers. Eventually, and gradually, these systems started to federate until they all came to support SMTP allowing easy emailing over the Internet. Expanding the range of who could be emailed helped continue its growth. Later, email was incorporated into the web, initially with services like Hotmail.com, where the concept of federation was assumed from day one and the silo approach was never known by most newcomers to these services.
Today federated email is free and ubiquitous – most people have multiple email addresses and getting more email identities is a non-issue. Email is also embedded everywhere – my WiFi router has email alert. I can get email notifications of my social networking updates. Email has becomea basic feature of almost every application.
PSTN-telephony is certainly trending in the same direction. WebRTC makes PSTN-access over the web possible, in the same way early web-mail systems freed email from desktop based applications. With “click-to-call” buttons showing up more often, the PSTN is also becoming embedded in more applications. WebRTC will make this much easier.
Is PSTN-telephony going to continue down this path with a system to federate WebRTC clients? What would it mean if it did?
Implications of this analogy
Email technology is so ubiquitous and mature that adding it to an application is no big deal. While WebRTC has many issues that need to be worked out, it does represent a major maturation point for VoIP telephony. It is good enough to open source. It is mature enough to be added to nearly a Billion browsers already. Millions of web developers can make use of it in short order. And just like email, if something is free, available everywhere, easy to embed, and easy to use, it will get used.
Who can provide email services? Pretty much anyone – loading up an SMTP server pretty simple in the realm of IT tasks today. Every ISP has a mail server, most major businesses – pretty much anyone with a significant user base that sends email.
Who makes money off of email? Almost no one. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have figured out how to monetize email as a service. Everyone else just offers it as an amenity – like your ISP, as a feature of a larger platform or ecosystem – like Apple iCloud, or as an embedded feature – like your favorite UC provider.
What does this mean for telecom service providers? If WebRTC goes this route then it will mean web-based telephony will be everywhere, but only a few providers will figure out how to make money off of it. This will be bad news for the approximately 2000 PSTN service providers out there.
What about the vendors to these telecom service providers? Well, there will still be huge demand for WebRTC technology but the customer base is going to look a lot different. WebRTC will mostly be an underlying feature, not a stand-alone product. The market will evolve in weird and unexpected ways once various niches get a hold of it.
Could WebRTC really end up like Email?
Does WebRTC need to be federated – no. Will a way to do broad scale federation for those that want to eventually emerge – likely yes. Will Telco’s use WebRTC as a user access mechanism and federate using existing mechanisms on the back-end – they are already actively experimenting with this.
Can the PSTN be compared to email? It is certainly not a perfect analogy. The PSTN has a heavy regulatory legacy. Email was never proposed as a way for citizens to receive emergency services. Let’s also not forgot thatthe quick and universally federated nature of email has led to massive spamming. The PSTN have never really experienced widespread SPAM issues, both because of the relative expense to the spammer and laws preventing it. It will be interesting to see how these changes are addressed as the PSTN dissolves into the web.
So this makes me think, even if it is possible, perhaps inevitable, that there will be some degree of WebRTC federation to supersede the PSTN, is that something we really want?