Ericsson releases WebRTC browser and framework as open source

The browser has been resurrected at least in part to make up for Apple's apparent disinterest in the technology

Ericsson is resurrecting its WebRTC-based browser, Bowser, to help spark the development of more websites and apps that embrace voice, video and messaging features.

WebRTC (Real-Time Communications) is a technology designed to help developers add real-time communications features to Web browsers and apps via JavaScript APIs.

The technology has so far struggled to find widespread success, but Ericsson is hoping to give it a boost by releasing Bowser and its underlying programming framework as open source, free for anyone who wants to use either of them.

The Bowser browser for iOS and Android was first released in 2012 to help both Ericsson and developers better understand WebRTC. At the time it was the world's first WebRTC-compatible browser for mobile devices. The company retired it earlier this year, but has had a change of heart and is once again making it available.

As a vendor of networking technology, Ericsson has a vested interest in fueling as much traffic as possible over mobile networks.

The lack of a WebRTC compatible browser for Apple's iOS is one of the main reasons the company is reviving the product. While waiting for Apple's Safari browser to support WebRTC, Ericsson wanted as many people as possible to start experimenting with the technology on iOS, Stefan Ålund, research manager at Ericsson Research, said in a blog post on Thursday.

Bowser has been re-submitted to Apple's App Store, where Ericsson hopes it will be available soon.

More importantly, the company has for the first time made the browser's cross-platform framework, OpenWebRTC, available to developers. Applications built on top of the framework will be interoperable with browsers such as Chrome and Firefox. Neither Internet Explorer nor Safari support WebRTC, which has limited the technology's popularity.

OpenWebRTC, however, has been used to implement WebRTC on Google Glass and can be used to build Web and native smartphone apps. On phones, native apps are often preferred by users and developers alike over Web apps, according to Ålund.

Ericsson isn't alone in thinking that WebRTC can become an important tool for developers who want to integrate communication features into their apps.

"My view is that WebRTC actually has the wrong name. Because of the name everybody believes that applications have to be browser based, but I don't think so," said Carsten Brinkschulte, senior vice president of enhanced network services at BlackBerry.

Until recently, Brinkschulte was the CEO of Movirtu, which launched its CloudPhone technology in February. The WebRTC-based software platform lets users make and receive calls over Wi-Fi networks using any laptop or tablet.

There are good reasons for integrating communications with browsers. But in a world where many people use mobile phones as their primary computing and communications devices, developers are moving away from browsers, according to Brinkschulte. WebRTC will, therefore, have its greatest impact when it is integrated into programs that run as native applications on smartphones or tablets.

"On mobile devices nobody cares about the browser. People care about apps," Brinkschulte said.

The jury is still out on whether WebRTC will be successful, whether in browsers or apps.

Standards were key to the success of text messaging, but in the last couple of years proprietary communications apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, Viber and Facebook Messenger have been the big hits. At the same time, standards-based technologies such as WebRTC and RCS (Rich Communications Services) have struggled to make a mark.

"Right now it seems like standards are becoming less and less important and proprietary solutions are gaining ground. The reason is that the user experience is typically better," Brinkschulte said.

Developers of proprietary apps can innovate much faster. When WhatsApp or Skype develop their apps they don't have to agree with competitors (who have their own interests to protect) on what audio or video codec to use.

"If you go proprietary, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want," Brinkschulte said.

But that doesn't mean he has given up on WebRTC. Because the technology only standardizes "the boring parts nobody cares about," the underlying specifications involved in transmitting data from sender to receiver, it still leaves room for developers to innovate, Brinkschulte said.

"That's why I think it can still succeed" Brinkschulte said.

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