Yesterday I held a talk at the WebRTCExpo in Atlanta, Georgia. The talk, which featured Ian Small, Dean Bubley and me, was called “Service Provider Views on WebRTC”. I was representing appear.in and Telenor to provide what a typical Telco thinks about WebRTC and the future of communications. I took a bit more of an original approach, and this blog post is an attempt to write down these thoughts in a somewhat coherent manner, and present my point of view on what the future of communications is.
After working on appear.in for almost a year, seeing the product grow from an experiment into a mass-market product, I have learned quite a few things along the way.
I think the most profound learning I have gotten is the fact that users don’t really care about WebRTC. In fact, they don’t care about the technology at all, all the cool stuff that us engineers think is awesome. Instead, users care about simplicity, ease of use, in other words, they care about the user experience. If the product is not simple to use, beautiful in its design, then users are not gonna stay, they are not gonna spread your product.
However, that does not mean that WebRTC in itself is meaningless. In fact, I think WebRTC is one of the most profound things that has happened to the communication space in a very long time. And the reason for that is that WebRTC allows developers to focus on creating good, innovative user experiences, instead of worrying about the technology. WebRTC is so simple and developer friendly that anyone is now empowered to create communication services. In addition, WebRTC is extremely cost efficient. appear.in costs around $300 a month to run, and we have deployed TURN servers in 5 different regions. That’s a cost that we expect to rise as we reach an even wider market, but it’s still many orders of magnitude cheaper than even the simplest telecom infrastructure. This enables even developers in poor countries, or single-person initiatives to prototype, deploy and watch their applications grow for something that I could pay out of my own salary. That’s significant!
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous communication
I view communication as a forward-moving pendulum between asynchronous and synchronous communication. Synchronous communication means that you can only participate in communication in one context at the same time, it takes a lot of attention. Examples of synchronous communication forms are phone, video calling etc. Asynchronous communication means that you can answer whenever it suits you, and you can often participate in many different contexts at the same time, mostly because the communication is not real time. Examples of this is messaging, email, image sharing etc. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are examples of broadcast asynchronous communication, and Snapchat, Whatsapp and Line are examples of typical one-to-one or small groups.
Right now, the world is very much skewed towards asynchronous communication. We have a need to broadcast our thoughts to others, to reciprocate, to talk to others, but we don’t have the attention span to have long synchronous conversations with someone. It just takes too much time, and we don’t have the patience for that anymore. However, at the same time, we also need human contact, we need body language, subtle cues, to see someone’s eyes light up when they see your face. Asynchronous communication does not deliver that same form of real time human emotion that we need. In addition, the world is getting more sparse. I have friends living all over the world, and we are now more than ever able to keep in touch, and we need to keep in touch, to preserve those dear friendships regardless of the distance that we are from each other.
Therefore, I believe that the world is currently shifting back towards synchronous communication, but it’s going to happen in ways that we cannot currently predict. Snapchat is the first mover in that direction with Snapchat Video. For the uninitiated, it works when both users are in the same chat together, a little blue orb lights up. If you click and hold that blue orb, your video will within a second appear on the other person’s screen. This entices the other party to also hold their blue orb, in practice “accepting the call”, but that’s not what really happens. It’s not a call, it’s a one-way communication, a moment shared, which is then turned into a two-way communication. And if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend that you do, because it is truly a profound and emotional experience, seeing that other person light up when they see you, see their smile, the glow in their eyes. You then realise what you’re missing out on when you just send text messages or images, that feeling of human contact.
It’s these kinds of new user experiences that will shape and innovate the way we communicate in the next five years. And I think a major part of it will become making these user experiences and expectations about it being OK to hang up, to have these short bursts of human emotion, to share the moments in real time with those you love.
In short, I think WebRTC will spawn a wave of innovation in the communication space, and I don’t think we can even begin to fathom the new kinds of user experiences that will pop up the next five years.