The name of a Rose
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,”
Juliet to Romeo
Now that the webRTC standard is settling and it seems clear that it will be in most people’s browsers by the end of the year, attention is turning to how it will be used and how it will impact existing business models.
The most interesting upcoming clash is around identity and names. Despite what Juliet says, names matter, they are the way we identify ourselves to others and the way that others refer to us. In the communications domain, names are central to the way we set up, schedule and permission communications sessions. I’ll avoid the word ‘call’ because it has behavioural connotations that are specific to 20th century telephony.
There are currently 2 camps:
Universal namespace camp (aka e164’s)
Believe that the telephone number name space has been hugely sucessful – providing an interoperable federated name space providing communications for 4 billion people.
Web identity camp (aka Silo’s or islanders)
Believe that their communication method is such a huge improvement over the PSTN that everyone should be using Facebook (or whatever) to communicate.
The funny thing is that neither of these camps actually practice what they preach. The e164’s use email addresses on their web portals (looking at you vodafone) when the user is on their device trying to manage the services associated with an e164 number.
The web camp make heavy use of phone numbers for verification and on-boarding (looking at you whatsapp, google ).
When you look at user behaviour, we all hate the universal access to us the phone number gives to other people, think of the social etiquette around when you give a friend’s number to someone else. – That’s because the number is the only gatekeeper between you and potentially unlimited interruption from the liars and thieves who infest the PSTN these days (not to mention ex-boyfriends). We all construct elaborate defensive screens of voicemail and switching off of phones to avoid the time suck that is everyone who wants to waste our time. Except of course when we welcome the distraction, or in rare cases find that it is a real person calling who we actually want to speak to. (God forbid that the Facebook ‘like-farmer’ and their viral-brand masters could actually make your screen ring….)
The silos manage this with friend lists, presence notifications and IM all of which can and should be used before the jarring impact of an actual voice (or worse video) session. However to do this they have to block all 3rd party access to their APIs – (in a rare backtrack Apple have never made good on Job’s promise to open the FaceTime protocol). They also have to aggressively manage their name spaces, preventing federation and interoperability.
It’s clear that whoever gets this right first will own the the communications space and possibly the huge revenues that the telcos currently enjoy from voice communications. (It is worth mentioning that the exact sums here are shrouded in mystery because what is reported as mobile voice revenue often includes a large network access fee component).
WebRTC is heading into this battlefield. So far the standards groups have managed to dodge the issue by leaving the whole matter of signalling as an exercise to the implementor, wisely refusing to take sides (much) on which protocol to use – and saying absolutely nothing about their identity schemes.
We are however at a critical point – (one of?) the mandatory encryption scheme (s) (DTLS-SRTP) carries with it the possibility to accurately identify the media endpoint – be it a browser or a gateway – in terms of an x509 certificate (as used by https web sites to confirm that they are operated by who they appear to be). The way that this certificate is created, managed, checked and presented to the users will make a huge impact on the sort of communications landscape we see in the future.