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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.

So there's a chance that Hello, or any future Firefox OS-based device that supports it, may appeal to a new generation of "cord cutters." In the meantime, it has to become a familiar presence to the present generation of browser users.

Is there an added value?

What Hello is not — at least, not yet — is a multiparty conferencing system like Google Hangouts or Skype. It lacks the "buddy list" that messaging users have come to expect, and it also lacks a method for communicating with actual phone numbers. For multiparty or telephone communication to happen, Hello would need concurrent contact with a central server with a telephone system gateway, rather than just browser-to-browser contact.

So it should come as no surprise that last October, TokBox, Telefónica's own WebRTC project, announced its intention to pursue exactly this goal. It may sound retro, but your browser may one day soon pop up a number pad and emit a dial tone.

WebRTC opens up a wide range of scenarios. For example, could third parties, at some point, use an API to direct conferencing to Firefox Hello as an alternative to embedding WebRTC components in their own Web pages? (It would be contrary to the aims of HTML5, but still, could it be done?)

"We think there's clear interest in enabling Web sites to easily add communication features while leveraging the power of a client built within the browser," responded Chad Weiner, Mozilla's director of product management, in email. "An API could enable, for example, real-time support capabilities and enrich collaboration between services and their users... We can see a future where Hello evolves to support multi-party conferencing, but for now we're focused on making Hello the easiest way to connect with anyone, anywhere."

The sudden WebRTC market

For now, Hello is a way for users to exploit WebRTC conferencing without waiting for Web sites to embed it into their pages first. Assuming the Firefox user is willing to add the Hello button to her toolbar (it must be done manually), it does give Hello a prominent position in front of any other WebRTC method available to Firefox users, which could make Hello more competitive to whatever else may come along — for example, a chat button on a Web page.

Will there be competition? Yes, and it's coming in force.

Last October, Microsoft announced plans to incorporate a form of real-time communication said to be compatible with WebRTC, called ORTC, into a future version of Internet Explorer. It will be given the Skype brand, even though ORTC is not the P2P technology historically associated with Skype.

Microsoft then followed up that announcement the following month with the declaration that its Skype brand would absorb both its Lync business conferencing and its RTC efforts, signaling that Skype may not only become a featured brand in Windows 10 but in its browser as well. We may learn more about this on Jan. 21, when Microsoft unveils more details on its next operating system in an event at its Redmond, Washington headquarters.


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