Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) is a browser-based open source project that intends to allow real-time communication via voice and video—as well as document sharing—without users having to download software or plugins. In other words, the technology enables peer-to-peer video, audio and data communication between two WebRTC-compatible browsers.
Because WebRTC is entirely peer-to-peer, users don’t bear bandwidth fees or the need for additional servers or infrastructure in order to send data over a channel. A browser-to-browser solution, WebRTC offers end users the highest performance and lowest latency possible. Because of this, the potential business applications for the standard are almost limitless as every notebook, desktop and mobile device user could conceivably use WebRTC from a number of devices in the near future.
Currently compatible with Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Android, WebRTC is shaping up to be game-changing technology, as the standard will be supported on more than 4 billion devices by 2016, according to recent research.
To date, much of the current focus on potential uses of such technology in the enterprise has centered on the unified communications arena: phone, video, text and screening sharing. Some examples include:
- Customer service delivered via video conference. Because customers simply have to click on a button to contact customer service representatives, businesses seem poised to reduce their telephony expenses considerably as the technology matures.
- Real-time collaborating on documents over the Web. Say goodbye to endless email chains that contain multiple versions of an important document. With WebRTC, colleagues can collaborate on documents in real time, saving changes instantly so no one is working on an older version.
- Video calls that don’t require clients or plugins. Rather than the IT team having to configure the equipment that powers video calls, employees can simply copy and paste a link into their browsers. This saves your IT team a ton of time that can then be reinvested in other areas of the company.
- Endpoints are mobilized. Today’s workers are constantly on the go, and with WebRTC, they are able to use the same endpoint whether they are in the office, on the road or at home.
Because of this functionality, a number of unified communications vendors are incorrectly positioning WebRTC as a federation killer. As it stands now, these vendors imagine, if a user is on one platform and wants to talk to a colleague who’s using a different one, all he or she needs is to simply create a WebRTC link and email it on over. The other user then just needs to click on the link to hop on a voice or a video call.
Well, it’s not really that simple. After all, a user has to generate a URL, compose an email and send it over. That person then has to wait for his or her colleague to answer the email and hop on the videoconference.
Simply put, there is nothing real time about this way of communication!
Since you can never be sure how long it’ll take for your colleague to read the email and click on the WebRTC link to start that call, so to speak, it’s probably quicker to just pick up the phone and dial that person’s number. And that defeats the purpose of unified communications: to expedite communicative processes in real-time.
Is WebRTC disruptive enough to kill UC federation?
Technology is said to be disruptive when it displaces an earlier technology. For example, the proliferation of email, for the most part, has displaced the mailing of letters through the post office, much like digital cameras have displaced chemical photography and MP3s have displaced CDs.
In the world of UC federation, is WebRTC truly disruptive technology? That is, is the technology disruptive enough to end the need for UC federation across disparate platforms? Not really.
End-users want to be in constant contact via presence so they can easily reach to external colleagues when they are available.
WebRTC probably will eliminate the need to purchase and deploy expensive video conferencing equipment and having a lot of specially equipped rooms. However, it won’t address the need to check someone’s availability before contacting them, thus avoid having to leave a voice message, or having to send an email to check whether a colleague is available for a real-time interaction.
We’ve all sent or received instant messages asking “R U there?” or “can we have a quick call to sync?” In order to ensure a higher personal connection rate, more and more of end-users are sending short IMs before initiating a call. This helps reduce the number of voicemails that workers have to leave or respond to, as individuals can see whether someone is available before trying to connect. This trend illustrates the fact that end users need to be able to use presence-driven real-time communication modes to connect with individuals outside of their company, not only their co-workers.
While we agree that WebRTC is a promising technology, it’s a long way from becoming a UC federation killer. For that to happen, every organization would have to get rid of their UC servers or services, and deploy WebRTC services. If this were the case, there would be no need for federation between and among different entities, and business to business collaboration would be seamless.
But the real world doesn’t work that way. There are multiple UC platform solutions that are built on several different protocols deployed in organizations around the world, and the typical enterprise isn’t going to do a complete reap and replace of their UC platform or services they have implemented.
On top of that, Microsoft and Apple have not bought into WebRTC. So, for WebRTC to eliminate the need for UC-to-UC federation it has to be ubiquitously adopted by the enterprise. Otherwise, it will need to co-exist with variety of UC platforms and their underlying protocols.
From a UC federation perspective, is WebRTC interruptive?
On the other hand, in the world of UC to UC federation, is WebRTC interruptive technology? In other words, is it something that is not revolutionary? Is it something that will certainly have an impact without being a true game changer?
It appears to be shaping up that way, as WebRTC is an ideal complement to IM and Presence (IM&P) federation.
While most UC platforms today provide a consistent, single client experience for internal presence, instant messaging, and voice or video, there are no available options for employees that allow them to easily escalate chat sessions into a voice or video call sessions with their external colleagues on different UC platforms or UC-as-a-service.
The real obstacle to federated voice and video collaboration is that the UC vendor’s Access or Gateway servers don’t allow federated voice and video traffic.
To overcome this, WebRTC can act a bridge that allows end-users to enjoy voice and video browser-based connections with their external business partners. To connect, all an end-user would have to do is send his or her colleague a link in a chat window. That person would simply click the link and the session would be initiated, allowing for seamless escalation between users on disparate UC platforms.
So where does that leave us?
Despite its initial claims, to date WebRTC hasn’t proven to be ubiquitous. For now, it appears that WebRTC will be an interruptive technology that UC vendors will embrace and extend.
On Nov. 14, for example, Microsoft announced the beta launch of Skype for Web, a project that aims to bring completely plugin-free calling to all major browsers, powered by its own interpretation of the WebRTC standard called ORTC.
As it stands now, WebRTC lacks support for Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, so the standard by itself is not plugin-free. Sure, that lack of support could be sidestepped by installing plugins or codecs on those browsers, but that would defeat the very promise of WebRTC: plugin-free Web-based real-time communications.
So while the technology hasn’t yet lived up to its hype, it has encouraged innovation in the sense that vendors are increasingly engineering agentless solutions. In this light, at the very least, WebRTC is an innovative platform that might help shape future technologies.
Whether or not WebRTC evolves from where it is now and reaches its full potential remains to be seen. But as a complementary technology to UC, WebRTC can bring voice and video collaboration to the next level by allowing business partners on different UC platforms to sidestep the lack of federated video and voice.
The end result? Business partners are able to enjoy more robust collaboration experiences. And they’re more productive because of it.