WebRTC and the death of SMS
April 26, 2013  

People have been predicting the death of text messaging for decades. Or, more accurately, they love SMS but hate paying the fees that telecoms charge for delivering messages, and they have been hoping that one of the many competitors (AOL instant messaging, Skype, Twitter, etc.) will succeed in displacing it.

All this time it’s been no contest, and the reason is simple: greed. Say what you will about the telecom industry, text messaging works. A phone can send a text to any other phone, regardless of telecom provider. None of the competitors has been willing to cooperate with any other; they are all building walled gardens, trying to shut out their rivals. This approach can cut into telecom profits, but it will never make SMS less than indispensible.

WebRTC, which standardizes video chat in web browsers, is the first technology I’ve seen that has a chance at killing SMS.

WebRTC is not actually a technological advance. It takes SIP, mutates it a bit, and embeds it in a web browser (starting with Chrome and now Firefox). I don’t like SIP, and WebRTC is barely an improvement from a technical point of view (I think Microsoft’s approach is better).

But its non-technical advantages are going to make all the difference:


Google is pouring resources into WebRTC, and they are competent. It would be possible to make a very good SIP client with comparable effort, but somehow no one has made that happen. Google’s WebRTC implementation is better than 99% of SIP clients on latency, bandwidth, audio and video quality, and firewall/NAT traversal, and it supports multi-party chat out of the box.


Google is committed to interoperability, but their approach is different from the IETF’s with SIP. The IETF tries to get multiple implementations running and interoperating while they develop a standard; Google has worked first on their implementation, and only pursued interoperability late in the game. The IETF strategy resulted in a design-by-committee spec, whereas the Google strategy started with a good implementation and is leading to a (hopefully better) spec. Based on the quality of clients and servers, this has been a decisive win for Google.


Everyone has a web browser, so, eventually, everyone will have a WebRTC client.

Building block strategy

WebRTC is infrastructure. It does not provide a video chat service; it provides peer-to-peer media and data connections that can be used to build video chat services and clients. Moreover, the barrier to entry is low: any web developer can build a client and server.

This is really the key with regards to SMS. Yes, Google and Facebook can easily build walled-garden chat services with WebRTC, but so can everyone else, and it’s just as easy to build an open chat service. And only an open chat service can kill SMS.