WebRTC: a new game-changer, disrupting Telcos and OTTs

[Championed by Google, WebRTC allows browsers to make calls from your PC or phone – and it’s disupting both telcos and incumbent VoIP players, from Skype to Viber. Guest author Tsahi Levent-Levi discusses Google’s intentions and the trouble ahead for both telcos and OTT players.]

It’s been a tough couple of years for carriers (a.k.a. network operators) who have been fighting off competition from over-the-top (OTT) players such as Skype and WhatsApp, offering services such as voice and SMS over the carriers’ own networks. The impact of these OTT players has been astonishing – whether they’re nimble startups like Viber (with more than 90 million users, making over 1.5 billion calls a month and sending over 2 billion text messages), or large corporations such as Apple, whose iMessage  reaches 140 million users, sending 1 billion iMessages every day. Continue reading WebRTC: a new game-changer, disrupting Telcos and OTTs

The Tortoise and the Hare: The tale of Android evolution

[Android is moving too fast with software releases – too fast for the smartphone ecosystem to follow. At the same time, Android is moving too slow, as CE vendors are taking it outside of its mobile comfort zone with the introduction of form factors from tablets to in-car terminals. Guest author Tsahi Levent-Levi outlines the market forces straining the Android ecosystem and Google, as it moves away from smartphones to additional devices.]

Android evolution pic

Android is all the rage these days. In my meetings and correspondences with consumer electronic vendors around the world it is as if they have totally forgot about the “old“ “embedded operating systems” – pSOS, VxWorks, MontaVista, Nucleus, OSE, or any of the Linux and Unix variants that people have been using for years now.

While there are a few Meego strongholds and some Embedded Linux developers, most of the market has shifted to using Android. And it’s not just about mobile phones. It’s televisions. And tablets. And media phones. And set-top-boxes. And DECT phones. And DVRs. And Digital Picture Frames. And In Car navigation and entertainment systems. Every device that has a screen is now a prime suspect for migrating to Android.

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Chipset vendors have taken notice of Android. Chipset vendors who aren’t catering for mobile devices had no Android in their near future for plans for early 2011. That was 3 months ago. Today, these chipset vendors are joining the bandwagon and are updating their roadmaps and strategy by embracing Android – they have figured that it is better to join the club than to fight the tide.

The Hare: Moving too fast
While this is happening, Google is shifting gears. In 2010 they have shortened the release cycles for many of their products and are raising a new challenge to companies who wish to stay ahead of the game and compete in the market.

With 5 or 6 releases of their operating system in a single year, it may seem that Google is moving too fast with Android. While that is definitely true, Google and Android are also moving too slow at the same time.

Android Version Release Timeline

If you look at the mobile handset arena, Google is definitely not waiting for anyone.

The sheer amount of releases places handset vendors in an uncomfortable position of being unable to follow suit. Sony Ericsson released their Xperia X10 with Android 1.6 on August 2010. Dell out-did them with Dell Aero running Android 1.5 on August 2010. Older devices were launching with Android 2.1: Motorola Droid X released on July 2010 and HTC EVO released on June 2010 are such examples.

At the same time, Google has had to cope with different implementations of their API set for developers by the different handset vendors through their CTS (Compatibility Test Suite) program.

These changes between Android versions are not only additions – some of them are infrastructure changes that affect developers and break compatibility across versions. Take for example the addition of Stagefright – a new media framework released alongside OpenCore in Android 2.2 – will Google be keeping OpenCore moving forward or will they deprecate it in future releases?

Andy Rubin, VP of Mobile Platforms at Google said in an interview that their launch cycle “will probably end up being once a year when things start settling down”. Is that going to happen any time soon with iOS innovations and the introduction of Windows Phone 7? Unlikely.

The Tortoise: Moving too slow
On the other hand, Google hasn’t been able to address the hockey-stick market demand for the Android platform.

Back in 2007, Google created the OHA (Open Handset Alliance) consortium as a governance framework where Google could establish handset compliance requirements and thereby run the show (see their CTS and CDD requirements recently published. Following the same philosophy, they set up Google TV for Android-powered televisions. The next product category that Google will focus on will be tablets. But what about in-car systems, set-top boxes or media phones? Enter the OESF.

The OESF (Open Embedded Software Foundation) is an open alliance formed in Japan and active throughout Asia Pacific. It is the first non-Google consortium initiative for Android. Its charter is to define new API sets that cover the products that Google doesn’t. In that regard, the OESF has already introduced its own Market Place SDK and is making strides in areas related to home networking, VoIP communication, security stacks, automotive and more.

Google have decided in the past that tablets should be running their Chrome OS – a networked based operating system – and not Android. They also stated that vendors should wait for Honeycomb Android release and not use FroYo or Gingerbread for tablets. Vendors have not been convinced, preferring to use Android instead, with its currently available version. In September 2010, during IFA Berlin , a slew of new Android-based tablets have been introduced: Toshiba Folio 100, E-Noa’s InterPad Android tablet, Elonex eTouch tablet, ViewSonic’s ViewPad 7, Archos’ tablets and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. Deutsche Bank’s Jonathan Goldberg has compiled a list of 30 tablets planned to launch by the end of this year alone.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab released to the market with much fanfare last month is the first Android tablet that comes from a large vendor and backed by Google through its Android Market. This clearly shows Google’s new stance with tablets. The application layout issues that are expected with this tablet due to different resolutions than those available on mobile phones are going to cause headaches to both users and developers in the short term.

Factor into it the growing hype in China around Android and we are bound to see innovation happening out of Google’s campuses around Android.

Will these issues be solved in Android’s next release – Gingerbread, or only in the one after that – Honeycomb? Will Google try pushing vendors to Chrome OS instead for tablets? These open ended questions show how slow Google is in addressing non-smartphone markets.

This issue of form factors is the second dimension of Android’s fragmentation. There are three more dimensions: implementation fragmentation, user experience fragmentation and codebase fragmentation. If Google wants to retain their control over the Android platform, they will need to solve all of these five dimensions of Android fragmentation.

The crystal ball
Google is moving fast with Android and at the same time are trying to solve fragmentation issues of their platforms: they are working hard on reducing the amount of handsets running older versions of Android, they are trying to solve implementation fragmentation with their CTS suite and they are now focusing on user experience issues.

It is not going to be enough. The Android platform has captured CE vendors of all types. Any device requiring a user interface to operate is either moving to Android or will move to Android soon. By ignoring these devices, Google is leaving a wide door open for other vendors and organizations to cater for their needs: the OESF are doing that on the standardization front, while new entrants to this market such as Amazon may become the ones providing the application stores for such devices.

At the end of the day, Google will be able to focus and control a relatively small number of form factors: smartphones, televisions and maybe tablets. The rest of the market will be using the Android platform without Google’s direct assistance and control; we should see other application stores enter this market, which is a genuine opportunity for the likes of the Amazon app store (Android-based, white label Kindles, anyone?) and all the other service providers out there to compete with Google’s services on Google’s own home turf.

– Tsahi

[Tsahi Levent-Levi is Director of Technology and Solution at Radvision. He has been involved with the mobile video telephony market for 8 years, dealing with design, development, standardization, interoperability and marketing of such technologies. You can follow him on twitter or through his personal blog at http://blog.radvision.com/voipsurvivor/.]

The past, present and future of Mobile Video Telephony

[Apple has been trumpeting their ‘new’ iPhone 4 FaceTime service, but where’s the novelty? Mobile video telephony has been around for at least 8 years now. Guest author Tsahi Levent-Levi reviews the state of the mobile video telephony market, the barriers to its adoption and what the next 8 years hold]
The article is also available in Chinese.

Mobile video telephony has already been in the market for over 8 years, in most 3G phones, but have you ever used it? Do you even know if your phone supports it? If your phone has a front facing camera, chances are it supports mobile video telephony. And if you live in Europe and Asia, chances are you have a front facing camera.

With millions of users around the world equipped with mobile handsets capable of video calling, we should have seen more wide use of this technology. Why hasn’t this happened and where exactly is this industry going?

The 8-year history of mobile video telephony
Mobile video telephony started almost a decade ago. Sometime during 2002 I also joined the effort. It started by taking the consumer ISDN video telephony solution (that didn’t catch up), based on an ITU-T standard called H.324, repurposing it for mobile handsets and renaming it 3G-324M for no apparent reason. At that time, three organizations were involved: the ITU-T, the 3GPP (which focused on standardization) and the IMTC (dealing with interoperability between devices).

In 2002, the companies involved with interoperability were Ericsson, Dilithium Networks, Packet Video, Radvision, Sharp, and Siemens. What handsets were on the market? There was one from Sharp and a couple of others from the Japanese market, only available in Japan. By 2004 there were 14, including Motorola, Nokia, Qualcomm Samsung and Vodafone. It took about 4 years until you could safely say that each handset could connect to another and get bidirectional video.

Throughout the years, the main stakeholders of the standardization and interoperability were the vendors providing the protocol stack implementations such as Radvision and some select handset and chipset vendors – namely Qualcomm, Nokia and Ericsson.  The rest took a more passive approach, either by making sure that their handsets interoperate or by relying on others to provide those capabilities. When it came to certification and validation of the handsets, the main stakeholders were usually the service providers themselves.

Mobile video telephony today
Fast forward to today, and you will notice a few important improvements to the initial standards:

  • 3G-324M (a 3GPP specification), along with a GCF validation process, ensures that any handset coming to the market with video telephony can interoperate with any other handset out there. Putting the GCF test cases in place was a process of over a year, discussing the various tests that should be included and the creation of the ecosystem around it – mainly test labs and testing tools.
  • Operators have mandated the inclusion of 3G-324M support in all 3G handsets that they sell to their customer base. Or at least that was the case up until the iPhone came along.
  • Roaming agreements between operators in Europe and Asia have been put in place so that you can now dial an international mobile video call to others. With a few exceptions (dialing from Israel to Japan, for example) this service works flawlessly.
  • Call setup time has reduced from 7-15 seconds to below 1 second using additions to the standard. This was pointed as a barrier for consumer acceptance of the service, and operators have worked to successfully remove the barrier.

These days, standardization and interoperability efforts on mobile video telephony are limited. For the past 2 years it has been quiet in both fronts. The main reason? The standards have matured and interoperability is usually a solved problem. But still – consumer adoption is lacking.

So what went wrong? We’ve got enough phones supporting video telephony, interoperability is as seamless as in voice calls, and connection times are shorter. Where’s the usage we’re all waiting for?

Well, have you ever made a video call? Or received one? As someone who developed and then licensed 3G-324M technology to other vendors I did my share of video calls. Most of them work related. Very few were personal.

The sticking points of mobile video telephony adoption
Operators have been trying for years to get people on board their mobile telephony solutions, alas with little or no success. Several reasons have been offered to explain the lack of adoption. Yet none of these stand up to scrutiny.

  • Pricing: some argued that the high prices of video calls (60 cents a minute in some countries but the same as normal voice calls in others) is the reason why people don’t use it. I think it is irrelevant, especially when people don’t really know how much they pay for the service. People didn’t use it a lot even when operators provided it at the cost of regular voice calls, and at the same time people are using the SMS service which usually has ridiculously high pricing.
  • Video is unnatural: people like to see others but don’t like to be seen. Great, but how do you deal with the fact that for Skype, 36% of Skype to Skype calls are video calls? It can only mean that with the right implementation, people are quite happy to adopt video calling.
  • The missing video button. People take huge amounts of images on their iPhones without having a dedicated camera button. Most use SMS all the time – teenagers use it as their primary method of connection with their friends, and there’s no SMS button either. On most handsets, doing a video call requires the same effort as sending an SMS (minus the typing the message part). While it would be nice to have a video button for video calling, it probably isn’t the reason why people don’t use it.

While the reasons above have some truth in them, I think they are limited in their importance. There are other, more crucial barriers of adoption:

  • Video Quality:  mobile video telephony today uses very little bandwidth. 64 kilobits per second. Compare it to a high definition video channel of 2-4 megabits per second and you have a truly low grade video in hand. While handsets had low resolution displays that was just fine, but today, when VGA is the norm and higher resolutions are coming to smartphones, there will be need for more bandwidth. Once more bandwidth is available, there will need to be better processors capable of compressing video – but that’s just a matter of time according to Moore’s Law.
  • Coverage: in most countries, 3G coverage is partial, i.e. doesn’t cover the entire population covered by 2G. It means that if you want to call someone using video, you need to know where he/she is – your call might fail simply because the other party has no 3G coverage.
  • Usability: when you interact with a mobile device today, you don’t hold it at head height – you hold it a lot lower than that. Video telephony requires holding the phone higher. It is for the same reason I surmised that the iPad won’t have a front facing camera – mobile devices don’t provide the experience you get by having a video call in a conference room or from your laptop. Camera positioning is key here: on mobile handsets, the front facing camera forces the user to hold his hand in front of his face in an uncomfortable position – especially taking into consideration that today’s video calls are usually long ones. Add to that the fact that you need to deal with the phone’s speakers or connect a headset, add the noisy surroundings, and you have a recipe for bad experience.

Once the iPhone came along, operators changed their focus. From trying to get video telephony to be adopted and finding additional multimedia services, they went to putting their hands on shiny smartphones with touch capabilities. Apple has changed the attitude from “killer application” to the long tail of an application store. And now that the slew of Android devices are expected to come out, the resurgence of mobile video telephony requirements from handset vendors is being seen.

While bandwidth and processing power will be solved naturally with faster, better and more efficient processors and networks, usability requires real innovation. It makes it the most critical component of all. The one to solve this problem will open up the mobile video telephony market for the masses.

Where is mobile video telephony used?
While we have no real mass adoption of mobile video telephony, there have been some notable trials that have been going on for the past several years around the world.

The concept of mobile video telephony as a killer application was a wrong one, but the use of it as a building block by various applications can be found:

  • Video Mail: video mail support has been deployed by multiple operators worldwide. It allows people to leave video messages from one to another and retrieve them later. In the same way that voice mail services suffered from the rise of SMS, so does video mail, which was already disadvantaged by the limited use of video calling services.
  • Mobile TV and video on demand (VOD): while there are other options for mobile TV, mobile video telephony provides a solution that is standardized and available across most handsets on the market. Where mobile TV is fragmented between standards, video telephony can come to play. In Israel, for example, you can hook up to news channels from the phone in this way.
  • Entertainment TV: Mobile TV is nice, but adding interactivity was thought to be a killer application, especially for sports programs and reality shows. Trials of connecting video calling with sporting events and big brother have been done, but none have caught up.
  • PC-to-mobile: video calling over the desktop is used a lot more than over 3G. That being the case, the ability to bridge the two has been tried by a number of operators around the world.
  • Banking: banks have warmed up to video communications. They use it to enable access to specialists in remote branches or to allow people to contact a bank clerk remotely. They offer some of these services from mobile handsets as well – using mobile video telephony. Another interesting use of video communication in banking is accessing ATM services through video calling instead of voice calling.
  • Visual call centers: this is an easy one. Wherever there is a voice call center, a video one that allows mobile phones to call by video makes sense.
  • Healthcare: Mobile video telephony is used today around the world by doctors to communicate between peers and consult with specialists. An example of such a use is an Israeli hospital where doctors use mobile phones during their daily rounds and surgery procedures.
  • Hard of Hearing (VRS): Video Relay Services enable deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with the world by way of a mediator who communicates with them through the use of sign language using video communications. The ability to do that on the go adds an important mobility aspect to the service.

What becomes apparent from these use cases is that video is not used as a bidirectional conversation, but rather as a one-way real-time video communication for the consumer who wants to see the person they are talking to.

The healthcare example really is a key one here. Mobile video telephony is used today and can be used even more when expert advice is needed from people who are on the go. It is where this system excels.

What’s next?
We do have mobile video telephony, with all of its benefits and faults. But where are we going with it? The next step will be a migration of the service from circuit switching to packet switching – to become all-IP. This will require two major changes:

  1. Migration from WCDMA/HSPA to LTE, where an all-IP network will be the norm and network capacities and bandwidths allocated for each phone will increase.
  2. Replacement of 3G-324M with a different standard that runs over an IP network. Probably as part of IMS (IP Muiltimedia Subsystem).

While Apple just came out with their front facing camera and FaceTime service on the iPhone, it is still quite limited: it runs over WiFi, only between iPhone 4 devices and uses a protocol that Apple plans to open. For mobile video telephony to become a valid solution it needs to use an open standard, run everywhere and be interoperable across devices.

When will that happen? At the very least 8 years from now it will require the creation of the necessary ecosystem of companies who care. The problem is that these companies are currently focused on providing the basics of the LTE infrastructure. This requires them to rethink their voice and SMS technologies in initiatives such as VoLTE (Voice over LTE). Once they will have the attention span to deal with mobile video telephony over IP networks, they will have a lot of work to do. Standardization takes time and patience.

The winner though won’t be the one who brings better bandwidth or improved video quality to his mobile device. It will be the one who will solve the usability issue. Why? Because it is the hardest of the problems, and it is the toughest problem to solve. Bandwidth and processing power will be solved for all competitors – solving usability will be an innovation that can provide real added value. The moment that happens, you can be sure that mass adoption of mobile video telephony will become a reality.

– Tsahi

[Tsahi Levent-Levi is Director of Technology and Solution at Radvision. He has been involved with the mobile video telephony market for 8 years, dealing with design, development, standardization, interoperability and marketing of such technologies. You can follow his personal blog at http://blog.radvision.com/voipsurvivor/.]