Video Conferencing Ecosystem - Comparative Analysis
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Video conferencing has become the most effective and convenient way to communicate with people, or rather run businesses, in current times. This article chalks out the evolution of video conferencing and recognizes the major players in the market. It also talks about why Zoom dominates the market despite refraining from using WebRTC. Read on to know how Zoom rose to become a leader and what the future holds for the Video Conferencing technology.
Video conferencing is now an essential part of life. The ability to connect instantly to a person or to a group reduces the gloomy feeling of being distant or disconnected, both socially and professionally. With COVID-19 changing the way people all over the world connect and communicate, video conferencing has become a new normal along with working from home.
Evolution of Video Conferencing
Most people would be surprised that the term, "video conferencing", was actually conceptualized in the 1870s. Along with the computer revolution of the 1980s, webcams helped push video conferencing technology into a new era, with webcam advances playing an integral part. QuickCam, which was compatible with Mac computers, played a key role in the later development of video conferencing, so much so that it was included in the list of greatest devices in 2010.
As broadband internet became more affordable in 2004, video conferencing gained popularity. Skype, an early video conferencing service, was a large beneficiary. With its inception in 2003, Skype became a household name known due to its free, cross-platform capability even though it required a very high bandwidth to operate.
However, video conferencing as we know today has been 20 years in the making, and it started with Eric Yuan at Cisco. Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom, was an engineer at Cisco's Webex for about 20 years before leaving Cisco to introduce his own video conferencing platform, Zoom. He wanted to make connecting with his loved ones an easier experience, requiring just the touch of a button. After arriving in America in 1997, he joined WebEx as an engineer, but he was much more than an average engineer. For example, during his time at WebEx, Eric Yuan produced more than 30 patents. Cisco acquired WebEx in 2007 for $3.2 billion and it thrived under the aegis of Cisco. Later, Eric felt that the WebEx technology hadn’t advanced quickly enough, leaving the user experience chaotic and customers unhappy. Eric, hoping to improve video conferencing technology, went on to form Zoom, and the rest is history.
The rise of video conferencing is evident from the fact that its market was valued at $3.8 billion in 2019, is expected to reach $6.65 billion in 2025, and has a projected CAGR of 8.5%. With COVID-19, the market has shown tremendous growth, with American businesses having more than 11 million video conferencing meetings in a day.
Businesses in the US make over 55 million video conference calls per week, and it is clear that many employees like working remotely, as 89% say video conferencing helps in faster completion of projects and aids in employee retention.
The major players in the market are Adobe, Cisco, GoToWebinar, etc. Even with cut-throat competition, Zoom has emerged as a winner with a market share of 40%, almost 22800 active domains and nearly 10 million calls made each day. It is no wonder that Zoom made it to the OKTAs list of most popular apps in 2019.
The figure below depicts the market share commanded by the top ten in the industry:
Top 10 Videoconferencing Industry Players (Source)
One of the ground-breaking technologies in the realm of video conferencing is WebRTC, an HTML 5 specification that was introduced in 2011. WebRTC allows your browser to access your device's microphone, camera, and screen. The technology enables the user to share their screen in real-time, but the capabilities don’t stop there. What is fascinating about WebRTC is that also allows a device to send arbitrary data, not only video and voice, without using a browser plugin. In 2016, there were an estimated 3.5 billion internet users and around 2 billion browsers installed that were enabled to work with WebRTC.
Despite the immense capabilities that WebRTC brings to browsers, the Zoom web client did not use it. Zoom feared that WebRTC was a limited solution that would not allow Zoom to provide all the excellent features that their users expect from them.
However, WebRTC might be more helpful to Zoom than originally believed, as demonstrated by a test performed by Jitsi. The experiment was designed to test how easily both Zoom and WebRTC adapt to real-time changes in available bandwidth. The results were very interesting: when limiting the bandwidth to 500Kbps, WebRTC adapted in only 20 seconds, while Zoom took 156 seconds! When increasing bandwidth back to 2Mbps, WebRTC adapted in 32 seconds, compared to 62 seconds for Zoom. Clearly, WebRTC emerged as the winner in adapting to the resources.
Zoom V. WebRTC (Source)
The Zoom web client is not a WebRTC platform, but it does incorporate the getUserMedia API from WebRTC. getUserMedia is used to provide access to multimedia streams (video, audio, or both), allowing Zoom to access additional browser technologies like WebAssembly.
Interestingly, in 2019 Zoom slowly started incorporating other WebRTC modules in its web client system. The Zoom web client, initially reliant on WebSocket, has now switched to a WebRTC data channel, improving the performance.
WebRTC V. WebSocket
The improvement in performance is due to the underlying architectures of both WebSocket and WebRTC. WebSocket is a computer communication protocol originally built to help develop more responsive and rich web applications by implementing true concurrency and providing optimized performance. It provides full-duplex communication, which allows both the client device and the server to send messages simultaneously over a single transmission control protocol (TCP) connection. TCP is generally used for reliable data delivery. As such, if a packet is lost, TCP retransmits the packet assuring its delivery. However, in view of real-time applications like video conferencing, this property is not very appealing. The application will have to wait for the retransmitted packet, creating a lag in the video and or voice of the other party. Thus, in time-sensitive applications, if a packet is lost, it is better to lose it than to wait for it to be retransmitted.
WebSocket and WebRTC stack (Source)
WebRTC, on the other hand, is a free, open project that provides browsers and mobile applications with real-time communications (RTC) capabilities exposed via simple APIs. WebRTC enables users to set up peer-to-peer connections to other web browsers quickly and easily. WebRTC uses the user datagram protocol (UDP), which is optimized for latency and provides a real-time connection for video conferencing. In UDP, if a packet is lost, no recovery is attempted; the packet is simply lost. Since users do not perceive the loss of a small number of video packets, this property results in the real-time, smooth delivery of media streams. And, since retransmissions do not clog the network, it also provides better congestion control.
In addition, UDP requires far less overhead to communicate. For each socket connection setup, TCP requires three packets, and when data are being exchanged, a built-in feedback process verifies and acknowledges whether the data were received correctly. The consequence of this control and feedback mechanism is a significant protocol overhead, which means that a large percentage of your bandwidth is being used for these control messages. Conversely, UDP requires fewer control messages, occupying far less bandwidth.
TCP V. UDP Communication (Source)
One more advantage of WebRTC is that it is a peer-to-peer connection, which means there is no intermediate server, resulting in faster communication.
WebSocket V. WebRTC Data Channel (Source)
Zoom has many positive qualities from its flexibility to its user-friendly simplicity. Zoom would not be as convenient as it is today without using getUserMedia and the WebRTC data channel. Without these, using Zoom in guest mode (without signing-in) would require users to install the Zoom app or plugins.
Although Zoom is becoming one of the most popular video conferencing platforms in the world (even surpassing IBM in market cap), there are many competitors already moving to WebRTC. Technology can always be improved, and to stay ahead of the competition, Zoom should focus on a fully WebRTC-enabled implementation in hopes to improve the end user's experience.
Associate Consultant at Lumenci
Dheeraj Kumar Soni is a Patent Analyst with a specialization in Computer Networking and Network Testing. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT(ISM) Dhanbad. Dheeraj spends his off-work hours in reading and writing technical pieces.