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Latest Firefox tries to one-up Skype with WebRTC calling features

Scott M. Fulton, III | Jan. 16, 2015
With this week's rollout of Firefox 35, Mozilla is taking a bold step toward reclaiming the relevance that Firefox once commanded. Key to that effort is the organization's move to take a standard technology called WebRTC and add it to Firefox to let users make voice and video calls from their browser.

With this week's rollout of Firefox 35, Mozilla is taking a bold step toward reclaiming the relevance that Firefox once commanded. Key to that effort is the organization's move to take a standard technology called WebRTC and add it to Firefox to let users make voice and video calls from their browser.

The new feature, announced Tuesday, is called Hello, and it's not just Mozilla's desire to sound friendlier. It's the organization's latest salvo in a war against browser obscurity.

Hello, Hello

Firefox Hello lets the user initiate person-to-person conference calls directly from the browser. Although the user initiates the call on Firefox, the recipient can use any modern browser that supports WebRTC (Real-Time Communication). WebRTC is an open standard adopted by the W3C community for use in HTML5 that allows Web sites to incorporate video and audio conferencing tools into their pages.

The user initiating the call needs to have signed up for a Firefox account, though the call itself isn't managed by a server that keeps a directory of account holders. Instead, Hello triggers the sending of an e-mail to the call recipient, which contains a link to a server managed by Telefónica. When the recipient clicks that link, a signal is sent back to the initiator's Firefox browser, and the session can begin.

The call recipient finds herself on a page with a blazing Firefox logo.

As the Web transitions from a place for reading pages to a platform for running apps, browsers such as Firefox must evolve into a new kind of framework. The danger for Mozilla's effort to raise its profile is that any software framework — like Java, AIR, .NET, or WinRT — can slip quietly behind the scenes, joining anti-malware agents and background tools that users may forget are running in the background.

As WebRTC was originally envisioned, when a Web site wanted to communicate directly with users via voice or video, it could establish two-way communications using WebRTC, by way of components like buttons embedded into pages. For this scheme to work, all the major browser manufacturers — Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Opera Software — had to come on board, and they did. That cooperation is what makes it possible for Mozilla's Hello feature to let Firefox users dial up the users of its competitors' browsers.

But now that WebRTC technology has proven its worth, it's being perceived by some manufacturers as the key to making mobile devices that are not telephones competitive with smartphones. A device running the new Firefox OS, for example, could be sold by everyday retailers without the need for carrier contracts — or the "bloatware" sometimes featured on phones subsidized by carriers.

 

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