At the end of 2014, my colleague Adam Bergkvist and I attended the WebRTC Expo in Paris, partly to promote our Open Source project OpenWebRTC, but also to meet the rest of the European WebRTC community and see what others were working on.
At Ericsson Research we had been working on WebRTC for quite some time. Not only on the client-side framework and how those could enable some truly experimental stuff, but more importantly how this emerging technology could be used to build new kinds of communication services where communication is not the service (A calling B), but is integrated as part of some other service or context. A simple example would be a health care solution, where the starting point could be the patient records and communication technologies are integrated to enable remote discussions between patients and their doctors.
Our research in this area, that we started calling “contextual communication”, pointed in a different direction from Ericsson's traditional communication business, therefore making it hard for us to transfer our ideas and technologies out from Ericsson Research. We increasingly had the feeling that we needed to build something new and start from a clean slate, so to speak.
Some of our guiding principles:
I think that is enough of a background, let's circle back to the WebRTC Expo and the reason why I am writing this post on the Matrix blog.
Adam and I were pretty busy in our booth talking to people and giving demos, so we actually missed when Matrix won the Best Innovation Award. Nonetheless we finally got some time to walk around and I started chatting with Matthew and Amandine who were manning the Matrix booth. Needless to say, I was really impressed with their vision and what they wanted to build. The comparison to email and how they wanted to make it possible to build an interoperable bridge between communication “islands”, all in an open (source) manner, really appealed to me.
To be honest, the altruistic aspects of decentralising communication was not the most important part for us, even if we were sympathetic to the cause, working for a company that was founded from "the belief that communication is a basic human need". We ultimately wanted to build a new kind of communication offering from Ericsson, and it looked like Matrix might be able to play a part in that.
I had recently hired a couple of interns and as soon as I came back from Paris, we set them to work evaluating Matrix. They were quickly able to port an existing WebRTC service (developed and used in-house) to use Matrix signalling and user management. We initially had some concerns about the maturity of the reference Home Server implementation (remember, this was almost 2 years ago) and we didn't want to start developing our own since we were still a small team. However, Matthew and the rest of the Matrix team worked closely with us, helping to answer all our (dumb) questions and we finally got to a point where we had the confidence to say “screw it, let's try this and see if it flies”. ?
Ericsson had recently launched the Ericsson Garage where employees could pitch ideas for how to build new business. So we decided to give the process a try and presented an idea on how Ericsson could start selling contextual communication as-a-Service, directly to enterprises that wanted help integrating communication into their business processes, but didn't necessarily have the competence or business interest to run their own communication services. We got accepted and moved (physically) out of Research to sit in the Garage for the next 4 months, developing a MVP.
Since the primary interface to our offering would be through SDKs on various platforms, we decided early on to develop our own. The SDKs were implementing the standard Matrix specification, but we put a lot of time in increasing the robustness and flexibility in the WebRTC call handling and eventually with added peer-2-peer data and collaboration features, on top of the secure WebRTC DataChannel. On the server side, our initialconcerns about Synapse were eventually removed completely as the Matrix team relentlessly kept working on fixing performance issues, patching security holes and provided a story on how to scale. Over the years we have contributed with several patches to Synapse (SAML auth and auth improvements; application service improvements) and provided input to the Matrix specification. We have always found the Matrix team be very inclusive and easy to work with.
The project graduated successfully from the Ericsson Garage and moved in to Ericsson's Business Unit IT & Cloud Products, where we started to increase the size of the team and just last month signed a contract with our first customer. We call the solution Ericsson Contextual Communication Cloud, or ECCC for short, and it can be summarised on a high level by the following picture:
If you are interested in ECCC, feel free to reach out at https://discuss.c3.ericsson.net
As with any project developed in the open, it is essential to have a healthy community around it. We have received excellent support from the Matrix project and they have always been open for discussion, engaged our developers and listened to our needs. We depend on Matrix now and we see great potential for the future. We hope that others will adopt the technology and help make the community grow even stronger.