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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3 CX Stats That May Change How You Think About Digital Transformation

Technologies like Artificial Intelligence, automation, big data, and the Internet of Things have made digital transformation an absolute necessity for organizations. With people, processes, services and things more dynamically connected than ever, companies are feeling relentless pressure to digitize, simplify, and integrate their organizational structures to remain competitive.

But there’s a big hole in the fabric of most digital transformation (DX) plans: the customer experience (CX). The problem isn’t that companies fail to understand the importance of the CX in relation to digital transformation. Rather, most fail to understand their customers well enough to envision a truly customer-centric, digitally-transformed environment. Just consider that 55% of companies cite “evolving customer behaviors and preferences” as their primary driver of digital change. Yet, the number one challenge facing executives today is understanding customer behavior and impact.

A massive part of digital transformation involves building a CX strategy, and yet customer centricity remains a top challenge for most. In fact, I encourage you to be your own customer within your organization. Walk in your customers’ shoes, contact your organization as your customers would. What was your web experience? Was the expert knowledgeable during a chat conversation? How well did the mobile app work for you? Did you have a connected experience? Given your experience, how brand-loyal would you be to your organization?

Here are three statistics that will get you rethinking your CX strategy in relation to digital transformation:

  1. 52% of companies don’t share customer intelligence outside of the contact center. In other words, over half of companies are limiting the customer journey to the contact center even though it naturally takes place across multiple key areas of business (i.e., sales, marketing, HR, billing). Businesses must ensure customers are placed with the right resource at the right time, whether it’s in a contact center or non-contact center environment. The key is being able to openly share customer data across all teams, processes and customer touchpoints.
  2. 60% of digital analytics investments will be spent on customer journey analytics by 2018. Customer journey analytics—the process of measuring the end-to-end customer journey across the entire organization—is critical in today’s smart, digital world. Companies are rapidly investing in this area to identify opportunities for process improvement, digitization, automation and, ultimately, competitive differentiation.
  3. 60% of customers change their contact channel depending on where they are and what they’re doing. This means organizations must focus less on service and more on contextual and situational awareness. Businesses must work to create a seamless experience—regardless of device, channel, location or time—supported by customer, business and situational context captured across all touchpoints.

The CX should influence every company’s digital transformation story. For more tips, insights, and impactful statistics check out our eBook, Fundamentals of Digital Transformation. Let me know what you think. We look forward to hearing from you.

3 Key Steps to Starting Your Company-wide Digital Transformation

Stats show that 80% of companies identify “digital transformation” as their top strategic priority—but only 5% feel they’ve mastered it. Why the gap? Achieving a digital experience to a point of competitive differentiation requires organizational alignment. Digital transformation represents a crucial paradigm shift across the entire organization, yet research suggests only a fraction of companies currently implement an enterprise-wide digital strategy. To successfully digitize, all lines of business (LOB) must be aligned and move in concert towards digital innovation. This involves communication and collaboration among key stakeholders, especially senior executives, across every business unit—even ones you wouldn’t typically include.

Put simply, digital transformation is more than just digitizing your infrastructure before your competitors do. Yes, it’s about serving the growing number of digital consumers faster and better. But, more importantly, it requires a shift in organizational mindset and redefinition of business processes. The starting point for any digital transformation initiative should be a clear understanding among all business leaders (not just IT) about the nature, direction and projected outcomes of the transformation.

What does the discovery process look like? It can be summed up in three key steps:

  1. Situational Assessment: Executives across every LOB need to weigh in and agree on business drivers and expectations. Insights derived from this assessment should be used to map out short- and long-term business goals and key digital strategies to ensure organizational alignment.
  2. Opportunity Prioritization: Identify target applications and technology architectures, then determine how these new solutions will affect existing technologies and align with core needs (i.e., operational savings, CX improvements). In parallel, use this time to identify, analyze and prioritize gaps between existing and planned processes.
  3. Roadmap Creation: A detailed roadmap helps you finalize digitization plans before implementation. It should outline phasing strategy sequences, risk mitigation plans, and project feasibility reports that define the timeline, dependencies, costs (and return) and controls of each digital initiative. Consider this your digital transformation playbook.

Digital transformation is the foundation of how organizations will succeed or fail. Check out our eBook, Fundamentals of Digital Transformation, to learn more about this discovery process—the first of a five-step plan for creating a foolproof digital transformation strategy. Let me know what you think. We are here to help and happy to discuss.

When it Comes to Your Customer Experience: Ditch Legacy, Go Digital!

The future of business, indeed the future of customer experience, is life as we know it—here and NOW. Organizational success right now, however, depends on one thing: digital transformation.

Digital transformation can mean many things, but includes a fundamental idea—applying digital technologies to all aspects of life. For consumers, they use their smart devices, laptops, tablets, and favorite apps to make it through the day. For organizations, this means figuring out how to leverage existing digital technologies (apps, processes, procedures) and resources (essentially the talent of your employees) within your business strategically to serve consumers on their terms at any moment—all the time. And to do so better than your competition. Digital transformation also means looking at your existing business applications, mobile apps, processes, procedures, and talent through a different lens.

A successful digital transformation requires a shift in organizational behavior and cultural mindset. It means creating a strategic road map that outlines implementation and ongoing process improvement. It requires executive buy-in, sponsorship, and steady leadership. Perhaps most daunting of all, it means companies working to truly know and understand their customers. It means enterprise leaders having a firm grip on the big data that infuses their organizations.

The reality of a smart, digital world is clear. Advanced technologies like IoT and virtual reality are no longer science fiction, but fact. So much so that in just three short years, it’s expected that 100 million consumers will be shopping in virtual reality, and up to 20 billion objects will be Internet-enabled. Meanwhile, automation and data analytics have evolved from luxuries to enterprise necessities. Driven by this rapid pace of digital change, analysts predict that 65% of children today will grow up to work in roles that don’t yet exist.

Companies need to successfully digitize to remain agile, integrated and future-proof enough to support this future of everything. The good news is that 80% currently identify “digital transformation” as their top strategic priority. The bad news? These same companies are seriously struggling to migrate from their existing aged processes and legacy systems and architecture. Consider industries like government, where 71% of federal IT decision makers still use old operating systems to run important applications. How can they go digital without having the latest platforms in place to support a digital environment?

Organizations can’t re-imagine operations, re-engineer critical processes, or align key business areas the way they need to while relying on antiquated technologies. But creating a migration path is easier said than done. We have said it before and we will say it again, it’s about more than just the technology.

Sounds challenging, but it’s not impossible. Our ebook, The Fundamentals of Digital Transformation, can help organizations get started. Take a look to learn more about the top challenges of taking legacy experiences into the digital world, as well as the five key steps organizations can take to minimize disruption and boost adoption of new digital capabilities. Let me know what you think. We are here and happy to discuss.