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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