The Future Of Communication Is Already Here

All the hype in technology these days is around ML, AI/deep learning, self-driving cars, blockchain, AR/VR and other shiny new things. However, there is one area of technology that has been silently evolving and gaining momentum recently: communications. Comms no longer simply consists of things like PSTN, SIP or conference software and hardware. Its rise over time has been fueled by things like smartphones, social apps, productivity/collaboration apps, gaming and, more broadly, millennials. Even the big four tech giants — Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon — have caught up to this and are spearheading some keys efforts in the field of communications. In this article, I’ll specifically talk about an area of comms that has been gaining momentum: WebRTC.

Let’s look at some of the things that have contributed to it and those that can fuel further momentum in the near future.

The Demise Of Plug-In-Based Communications

Adobe Flash was synonymous with video plug-in for over a decade. It enabled things like collaborative and interactive audio/video streaming and screen share, and these have been gaining momentum over the last few years.

 However, Steve Jobs’ famous “Thoughts on Flash” article became a turning point in the demise of Flash. HTML 5 was eventually widely adopted, which led to WebRTC replacing Flash as a better free plug-in alternative. An initiative by Google, WebRTC has been implemented in most popular browsers (Chrome, FF, Opera and Safari), resulting in direct browser-to-browser communication in real time without the need for any plug-ins.

In fact, WebRTC can be used to connect any mobile/tablet/browser to any other endpoint, with the underlying WebRTC engine taking care of network inconsistencies. As of today, WebRTC has almost completely replaced Flash for real-time communications, and several sectors have taken advantage of the technology.

 Machine Learning And AI

Video communication is expensive, and even though bandwidth has gotten cheaper in recent times, the demand for it has increased manifold. However, companies are pursuing interesting optimizations using ML in image processing, and it could be just a matter of time before it is applied to real-time communication. The bottom line is that you send fewer bits across the wire and the receiver reconstructs some of the information using ML algorithms so that you still have the same quality of experience as before (or even better) at lower bandwidth consumption. This makes video comms more attractive to the cost-conscious user.

Online Learning

The risk of losing jobs to automation is real, and it has already been happening the last few decades when large-scale manufacturing units replaced people with machines. This is only going to get worse, and people will eventually need to upgrade their skills in order to stay employed. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) and Learning Management Systems (LMS) have picked up steam in the last few years, making education more affordable and easily available. Learning as a whole has evolved from brick-and-mortar institutions that offer degrees to individuals who simply want to upgrade their skills. Along with this comes the need for the educators and students to interact online frequently, and WebRTC makes this simpler by enabling this natively on browsers and mobile devices.

Health Care

As video communications become more secure and HIPAA-compliant, adoption by health care has been increasing. Health care has been going online steadily in the recent past with patients consulting with their doctors remotely. It can now be done directly from a patient’s smartphone or tablet, which is very convenient, especially for elderly patients who do not have to drive to a doctor’s office for every visit but still better than just a phone consultation.

 Social Media

Another area that has been fueling the rise of WebRTC is social media. Apps like WhatsApp, FB messenger, Snapchat and HouseParty (full disclosure: HouseParty and Esurance are Tokbox customers) use WebRTC and have sparked a communication craze lately, with millennials spending enormous amounts of time each day on these apps. And most of these apps have been following a trend: They start with text messaging and then audio/video calling gets added on top to keep the app relevant and increase user engagement.

Customer Support

 Amazon is one of the biggest tech (e-commerce and cloud) companies in the world, but one of the things that sets it apart from the rest is its customer service. So much so to the point where it decided to integrate a customer support app for its Kindle tablets. Intuit has a customer support app for its TurboTax application to handle a high volume of in-bounds during tax season. Esurance allows customers to file claims remotely via a mobile phone, thus speeding up the entire process of filing a claim and appraisal. This list goes on and on for pretty much any company that really cares about its customer support and has taken advantage of WebRTC to achieve real-time video/audio communication with its customers.

While these are some of the areas that are contributing to the rise of real-time communication thanks to WebRTC, there are many more that I have not mentioned. As previously mentioned, this space is not as sexy as ML/AI or AR/VR, but it has been gaining momentum over the last few years, and competition in this space has picked up. We will only continue to see this trend, and it is not unreasonable to predict a future where video communication becomes ubiquitous.

Written by Venkat Venkataraman for Forbes Magazine.

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