WebRTC: What It Is, and Why It's Coming to a Browser Near You Soon

I have been working in the field of communications for a long time, and have witnessed many significant changes over the years. Some ideas, like IP telephony, have revolutionized the industry. Others fell flat on their face.

WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) is one of those ideas that falls into the revolutionary camp. While still in its infancy, I predict that within a very short period of time, WebRTC applications will become a daily part of how we communicate.

What exactly is WebRTC?

WebRTC is a technology that allows web browsers to send and receive real-time media. For instance, WebRTC allows you to go to a web page and use that web page to make an audio or video call. The media is sent directly and securely from your device to the recipient’s device.

If you’ve been involved in telecommunications for a while, you might be saying, “I thought we can already do that.” The answer is “yes,” but to make those calls, the web page requires that you download an application or use a browser plug-in like Flash.

There are several problems with those approaches. Downloading applications can create security problems. Also, that application might work on Windows, but not on Macintosh, iOS, or Android.

The same goes for plug-ins. Flash works great on my Windows PC and my iMac, but it’s not supported on my iPhone or iPad.

With WebRTC, the technology is native to the browser itself. There is nothing to download or install.

WebRTC is concerned with three major tasks.

First, it needs to acquire audio and video components on your device — for example, your PC’s video camera, speakers, and microphone.

It then sends that data to the far end. This requires WebRTC to know how to navigate through firewalls and understand Network Address Translation (NAT) issues.

Finally, while WebRTC developers have been initially concerned with voice and video, the technology is being designed to support all forms of peer-to-peer data sharing.

Google has been leading the charge and WebRTC has been embedded in current versions of their Chrome Browser. It’s also used by Firefox and Opera.

However, it’s still not available in Apple’s Safari and while there have been rumblings that Microsoft might deliver a WebRTC version of Internet Explorer, but I have yet to hear anything definitive.

It should be noted that some companies are making WebRTC plug-ins for Apple and Microsoft browsers. That goes against the “nothing to download or install” aspect of WebRTC, but if you absolutely need to support Safari or Internet Explorer, there isn’t another option at this point in time.

WebRTC-capable browsers are the first step, but actual WebRTC applications are essential if this thing is really going to take off. So, what is the status of those?

From what I can tell, most companies are still kicking the tires — albeit kicking them pretty hard. While I have experienced a few full-blown WebRTC-enabled webpages, they are more proof-of-concept than product. They are out there to play with, but the mass exposure isn’t quite there.

Case in point: I recently read a survey of 105 entrepreneurs, users, and vendors in the WebRTC ecosystem; 68 percent felt that WebRTC would not emerge from the chasm in 2014.

However, another way to look at the data is that more than 68 percent of the respondents indicated that 2014 will NOT be the breakthrough year for WebRTC–that it would come later or not at all. This indicates that while there is general positive outlook on WebRTC, there is clarity that much needs to happen.

That’s not to say that there won’t be quite a few live implementations in as little as six months to a year. Momentum is building in a big way.

Where will WebRTC see its biggest impact?

Finance, customer care centers, health care, and education will likely be in the forefront of the most significant applications. Imagine click-to-call or click-to-video buttons on every company’s webpage. Personally, I would rather point and click than pick up a telephone handset to dial an 800 number.

After that, I envision social media will be a big participant in the WebRTC space. It’s already part of Google Hangouts and I cannot imagine that the folks at Facebook aren’t running prototypes in their labs.

What are the challenges?

Like all new technologies, there are differences of opinion as to how it should be implemented. One of the choices that developers are facing today is choice of video codec. Google is a strong supporter of VP8, while Cisco has put their efforts behind H.264. Avaya has chosen to play it safe and support both codecs until an agreement is reached.

There is some debate amongst the WebRTC community as to the pros and cons of the two codecs. From what I was able to gather, H.264 does a slightly better job with high-motion video, but both perform well in most other situations.

Note that VP9 is just around the corner and it promises to offer significant improvements in terms of speed and media quality.

The biggest difference between the two codecs is that VP8 is open source, while H.264 is patented and therefore licensed. While there are rumblings about a “free” version of H.264, it’s unclear to me just how that will made available, distributed, and supported.

In the end, though, I hope that some consensus is reached. Unified communications really ought to be unified at all levels.

Another challenge exists in terms of the actual experience. Despite the fact that WebRTC is natively available in a user’s web browser doesn’t mean that the conditions to create a WebRTC call are ideal. PCs vary greatly in performance. Network connections can often be far from ideal. A user’s speakers, microphone, and camera can be set up incorrectly, resulting in a sub-par real-time communications experience.

There are also the challenges back at a company’s customer support center. Will the agents be properly trained to handle yet another customer touch point? How will the agents be able to associate a WebRTC call with a customer’s previous interactions? How will success be measured and reported both in real-time and historically?

While all these are fixable issues, they are not solved without planning and effort. New technology can get an undeserved bad rap if it’s not implemented carefully.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

In the end, though, I expect that WebRTC will be a big winner all around.

The codec differences will be worked out and the standard will be solidified. Consumers will welcome real-time communications that doesn’t require downloads or plug-ins. Companies will love the consistent interfaces that address a huge market of disparate technologies (PCs, tablets, smartphones, browsers, etc.). Developers will create a vast array of new and exciting communications applications.

WebRTC is a disruptive, revolutionary technology that stands toe-to-toe with the biggest changes we’ve seen in the communications space. I am sure of that.

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Time to evolve a Siri-like CHATBOT

2016 is shaping up to be the year of the Chatbot. From Jarvis, Mark Zuckerberg’s Iron Man-inspired assistant, to Microsoft’s rather unfortunate Tay experience, chatbots have been making the news this year—although as of yet, nobody seems to have figured out a way of getting them to write it. So what are these exciting new digital automated friends doing to help where they are most needed, in the customer experience.

Automation in customer experience is all about making things faster, easier and more streamlined for customers—so automation can be said to deliver a more personalized experience, as we don’t have to repeat ourselves multiple times, and explain our problems to different agents every time we contact an organization.

Pretty much any organization today has some sort of customer experience process in place, and that process has evolved along with technology. From the traditional call center, with rows of agents handling multiple calls, we have moved on to the contact center, and multichannel communications, to the omnichannel experience. Customer experience professionals love the omnichannel. It allows them to shift their customer experience from a fragmented model (when you call the contact center 10 times, you get 10 different contact center agents, and you have to authenticate yourself and your problem 10 times too), to a seamless, or “smart” omnichannel experience (you make contact one time from any communication medium and enjoy a continuous conversation).

With a multichannel Contact Center, the goal in delivering an awesome customer experience is gluing the pieces together: linking the various knowledge and functional teams to customer service, delivering new capabilities and features that, eventually, enable us as customers to call one time, and see our problems solved. This first-touch resolution wasn’t possible before and vendors continue to bring new tools and technologies to achieve that. Customers however want more as they evolve as digital citizens.

At heart, many brands are still providing customer service the same way: you initiate communication with a person in the contact center, and they respond, albeit now that can be done via phone, e-mail, text or social media. And, let’s face it, people still don’t like contacting customer service. We are still really reluctant to make that initial contact—we don’t get the immersive experience we seek as consumers.

The promise of artificial intelligence to deliver the combined objectives of first-touch resolution and immersive experiences is almost complete. Avaya is leading this transformation with an upcoming evolution in its technology, where chatbots, amongst other modular analytics tools, are only the beginning of a brave new digital world. Our R&D and customer experience folks are perfecting that digital persona “who” is intelligent enough to learn from experiences, predict your preferences, and resolve your problems—almost before you know you have them.

So why stop there, I ask? I don’t want to talk to a robot, I want to see them, joke with them and maybe play a game together. The technology to allow that to happen is here, isn’t it? We have headsets, digital glasses—surely, whatever is coming can catch up with my dreams. Maybe. In the meantime, we have to live with Siri.

Opportunities Abound in a Digitally Connected Asean

Four months after the Asean Economic Community (AEC) came into being, observers and analysts are watching as integration unfolds. Asean has always been about working together. Economies, cultures and even digital adoption vary widely across the region, yet trade, cooperation and tourism continue to prosper. The AEC heralds the beginning of a new era where this existing cooperation can take further shape and propel Asean into further growth.

With a combined gross domestic product of $2.6 trillion, Asean countries together make up the seventh largest economy in the world. Taken together, the bloc’s population of 620 million makes it the world’s thirds largest, after China and India. The AEC promises unbounded opportunities, especially for local businesses, which make up more than 97% of the total enterprises in the region and employ more than half of the workforce. Mid-sized businesses that already enjoy stable operations at home or in the region and have the resources to grow beyond Asean’s borders are expected to benefit most from the open economies of the AEC. However, its diversity could prove to be a web of challenges for those unprepared to navigate this freer yet hyperconnected world.

The answer lies in technology, a great leveler for businesses of all sizes and scale. At the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, a small- and medium-sized enterprises’ working group noted that technology adoption and the digital economy are crucial to harnessing APEC’s potential for economic growth. Leaders recognised that digital technologies can springboard developments for Asean nations and urged local businesses to embrace true digital transformation.

With that in mind, it is time that APEC chief information officers (CTOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) take another look at their technology environment and remove the inhibitors of business transformation. Here is a quick checklist for Asean businesses to reap the benefits of the AEC and grow successfully in this exciting new chapter for the region.

Mobility needs to sit at the heart of every business’ strategy

According to US-based research firm International Data Corporation, enterprise and consumer spending on mobile devices and related software and services in Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan) will reach $578 billion by 2019, making it the largest region in the world in terms of mobile-related spend. In Asean, smartphones accounted for three-fifths of the total mobile phone market. CIOs who don’t prioritise mobile are limited in their ability to reach Asean’s 600 million consumers.

Information silos must be broken down

Information silos—information management systems that are unable to freely communicate with other information management systems—stop data being shared across departments. This prevents the delivery of the type of personalised, omnichannel experience that customers expect today. Information silos create a disjointed view of the customer and, as a result, service falters and the company becomes blind to up- and cross-sell opportunities. Having access to all the data and intelligence facilitates innovations and closer customer engagement. In the digital economy, the ability to differentiate the user experience will be a winning strategy.

Automation will drive innovation

Manual processes limit what organisations can get out of their other enterprise-wide investments. The ‘internet of things’ (IoT) and robotics are fast changing every aspect of businesses. According to Frost & Sullivan, IoT investments will be one of the major trends in Asean economies, estimated to grow to $7.53 billion in 2020. In today’s context, without automation driving the back office, CIOs will constantly spend resources physically connecting processes that span the rest of the business. Automation helps businesses concentrate on using technology in innovative ways to gain competitive advantage.

Monolithic systems must be upgraded

Legacy investments that are preserved for too long are often hugely detrimental to the modern goals of business, and create two massive problems. First, maintaining them takes a huge amount of time and energy, leaving little room for investment in the true innovation that drives digital transformation. Second, trying to modernise on the back of a monolithic system is similar to dressing your car with a spoiler, when what you really need to do is look under the hood and service the engine.

Cybersecurity is key

For businesses today, cybersecurity remains at the forefront of business strategy and technology decision-making. For organisations working toward digital transformation, the first step in creating a digital security strategy is understanding exactly what it is that a potential hacker would be interested in. From there, the CIO is in an informed position to build a strategy from the ground up.

Transitioning from Cold Calling to Relationship-Building through the Contact Center

How often does it happen that you are in the office, maybe exchanging a joke with colleagues or trying to get your head around a report, and you’re interrupted by a bank agent calling you up to pitch yet another credit card, or some other “exciting” service you aren’t remotely interested in?

And how many tactics have you used to dodge those calls? The list is endless: the need to go into a meeting, pretending they’ve reached an out-of-date number, faking your own death… OK, maybe the last one is just me.

Dislike for intrusive cold-calling is pretty universal. In the UK, BT is introducing its “Choose to Refuse” service, allowing users to block annoying and unwanted incoming calls from specific numbers. Good news for the consumer perhaps, but not such good news for organizations that have put a lot of effort into designing and tailoring an attractive offering–one that their customers may well be excited about hearing of – but only if they are approached in the right way.

Ultimately, getting the approach wrong is what is really causing annoyance. It’s understandable that organizations marketing new products and services want to leverage their existing database of current and potential customers–that’s why they invested in building those resources in the first place. Businesses today sit on a tremendous amount of customer data, collected from the different touch points they use to interact with them, whether that is email, voice, chat, Web or social.

What too many businesses are doing with this data today is contact en masse all the contacts they have assembled with offers that may or may not be relevant to them – which is why people end up avoiding their calls.

The end result can be a lot worse than a wasted call: this type of approach can do severe damage to a company’s reputation, with customers literally going out of their way to avoid contact with a brand.

Predictive analytics, according to Ahmed Helmy, a senior architect at Avaya, is the answer. With the tools available today for the contact center environment, the mass approach is totally avoidable – but only if an organization has integrated its contact center with other communication and marketing channels, and is prepared to deliver a true omnichannel customer experience.

In today’s customer environment, omnichannel should be a prerequisite.

By breaking down information silos, enterprises can really crunch data, allowing it to intelligently identify the buying habits of customers, and their likes and dislikes—how and when they like to be contacted, how they engaged previously, and what is likely going to trigger their interest.

By efficiently managing contact center resources and enabling agents to have the “right” conversation with the “right” customers, companies can boost their sales, enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, and, ultimately, grow their bottom line.

Avaya Chief Technologist Jean Turgeon says organizations that adopt this approach are moving from the contact center environment into the world of the “relationship center” – a term that covers a number of meanings: mutual understanding of what is important, appreciation and respect of likes and dislikes, delivering value to both parties, and, eventually, building long-term relationships that are extremely hard to break.

Avaya has built the tools that deliver predictive analytics – we can help enterprises seamlessly crunch and segment their massive data stores and enable software tools to predict customers’ needs and behaviors. These can be linked to the ongoing development of products and services, ultimately creating an ecosystem within the organization that is continuously in-motion, reaching out to every customer differently, as they want it and with what they want.

So, hopefully, the next time my bank calls me, it will be contacting me before my annual trip to the UK to offer me a card with a loyalty reward program that covers my favorite UK brands. And that will be an offer I really can’t refuse.