WebRTC is either changing, or about to change, the way you communicate. It first caught my attention two years ago. At the time, I realized a communications revolution was coming, but couldn’t say when. Predictions about the adoption of a technology are fairly easy to make, but things get murky when you mix in the usual corporate politics and red tape. I took a best guess that 2014 would be the year WebRTC would finally reach the mainstream and now as the first quarter of the year comes to a close, I’m taking a look at the state of the technology and how it’s changing everything about Internet communications. Has it gone mainstream? Let’s review.
First off, what is WebRTC?
Before we dive into WebRTC, let’s first talk about RTC or Real-Time Communication. You’re likely already an expert in RTC if you’ve ever used a service like Skype, FaceTime, Jabber, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Adobe Connect or any video conferencing system such as those offered by Cisco Tandberg, Polycom, Avaya, LifeSize… the list goes on. Any product that allows you to communicate with one or more individuals, in real time, using video or voice utilizes RTC. When it comes to the general public, these technologies are great, but are used in a (relatively) small number of use cases. When it comes to business use, these technologies have abundant applications within the enterprise, but there are challenges to full adoption. These include:
- the need to use proprietary hardware or software,
- the need to use downloadable plugins,
- interoperability problems, and
- difficulty in maintaining and deploying the services.
While WebRTC has the ability to solve many of these problems, we’re not quite there yet.
So what about the “Web” half of WebRTC? According to Wikipedia:
“(Web Real-Time Communication) . . . supports browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat, and P2P file sharing without plugins.”
Great, so what does this really mean? It means there is now an open source, (still undrafted and unratified) web standard, with associated underlying technology, that enables plain old Internet browsers to:
- Access audio and video devices, including a user’s webcam and microphone
- Initiate secure point-to-point video and voice calls between devices
- Share files and data between end points using a secure data channel
- Make use of NAT traversal techniques to get video calls working through firewalls
It’s a game-changer. The barriers to entry for video conferencing application providers no longer exist. A video application on par with industry leading software, such as Skype, can now be built by web developers and run directly in the browser. This means that a $100,000 video conferencing installation on a corporate network can realistically be replaced by a few laptops with HD webcams and monitors. These capabilities have opened up the door to hundreds of companies (and more showing up every month) offering up services powered by WebRTC. I hate to use the “D” buzzword, but this means major disruption.
When I speak to those unfamiliar with WebRTC, I usually get a surprised look when they hear it’s open source technology. I am a huge fan of open technology, but it would be misleading to say we got here completely on the shoulders of the open source community. In a nutshell, Google sparked this when they open sourced the project in 2011 using technology they attained in several acquisitions, most notably GIPS and On2. The technology is extremely robust and now poised to become a true web standard under the direction of the W3C and IETF, and enterprises are only beginning to unlock its potential.
So how are businesses taking advantage of WebRTC?
The range of business opportunities is staggering. Companies are now offering entire call center platforms using WebRTC point-to-point video chats. The next time you’re frustrated on your bank’s website, don’t be surprised if you’re prompted to click on a button that allows you to connect to a support representative via video. Once you’re connected, they may even go one step further to initiate a screen sharing session so they can actually see the problem as you see it on your screen. Unified communication providers are now offering software packages on par with products that required deep Fortune 500 caliber pockets to develop just a few years ago. Telco providers are stepping into the mix to bridge the gap between WebRTC traffic and “traditional” communication protocols like SIP and PSTN. Video engineering shops are creating custom video applications, including multi-point control units, to bridge multiple participants together and gateways that handle interoperability gaps. Other providers are making file sharing easier than ever using the features provided by the WebRTC spec.
To help understand this further, check out the infographic Brad Bush, the CMO of Genband, has created. While many companies are already listed, I can name a dozen others that could be added and the list will surely continue to expand as this technology continues to grow.
Ok, now for the bad news
Although any browser maker can utilize the features of WebRTC, only Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera are fully supporting the implementation. Microsoft and Apple have not yet added the technology into their browsers. Microsoft likely sees WebRTC as highly competitive to both Skype and Lync. Apple has traditionally been less motivated to adopt (de facto) industry standards. Just ask Adobe how they impacted Flash! As noted by our friends at WebRTC World, a recent report by ABI Research estimates WebRTC enabled devices at 6.2 billion by 2018. Only time will tell how long Internet Explorer and Safari can hold out.
Are we there yet?
There is no doubt WebRTC is here to stay. The product offerings are mature, and many companies are off and running. There is no turning back, but has the technology reached the mainstream yet? Many will argue “yes!” with good reason, but I’ll say “not yet.” Adoption will come like a tidal wave within the remainder of 2014. By Q1 2015, you can expect the term WebRTC to be ubiquitous and, at that point, we’ll wonder how we lived without it.
I’m keeping an eye on the industry, but I’m also quite busy adding WebRTC components to my webcasting platform at TalkPoint. I plan on writing about this topic more as it progresses, but if you want to keep up on the latest and greatest, I suggest regularly checking out bloggeek.me, chriskranky.com and WebRTC World. If you want to know how this all works at a technical level, a great place to start is HTML5 Rocks WebRTC basics and WebRTC.org
Mike Vitale is the chief technology officer for TalkPoint and brings over 12 years of experience in webcasting technology, specifically in project management and software development, to the company. In the last decade, Mike has managed the creation of three enterprise SaaS-based webcasting platforms developed and maintained by TalkPoint’s in-sourced development team. Drawing on business management strategies including Lean, Agile and Six Sigma, his broadcast operations team produces over 20,000 webcasts per year.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi