Though still in its infancy, WebRTC brings great promise for transforming business communications. I recently attended the WebRTC Conference and Expo, so I thought I’d put together my top 6 take-aways for those who were not able to attend.
It was a relatively small conference attended by the industry experts who are leading the WebRTC standards, Google and Firefox engineers who are leading in the browser implementation areas, and a handful of bleeding edge vendors who have already baked WebRTC into their communications services and products. If you wanted to learn about WebRTC then this was certainly the place to be.
Among the exhibitors there was a good range of telecom and communication equipment vendors and service providers, ranging from Ericsson and Plantronics to new startups like Plivo, Drum and AddLive, together with a range of innovative product and service providers like Thrupoint, Vidtel and Twilio.
So without further ado here are my 6 key take-aways from the conference.
1. WebRTC will transform communications for business
For a quick recap – WebRTC is a platform for communications built right into the web browser. It allows developers to develop communications applications (audio/video/data) that can be run from any website and can be used by any visitor using a standard web browser, without the need for Java or Flash plugins. For developers the application implementation for each browser, if the browser adheres to the standards, should not require any modification, meaning that one application can run across all browsers (at least as far as the WebRTC part is concerned).
Many industry experts are saying that the effect of this platform will be as game-changing for communications solutions as the WWW and web browser was to business. In reality, by embedding real-time communications into any web-based application WebRTC allows creative developers to imagine and to create many new ways for business to communicate with their customers, partners and employees. Whether WebRTC will kill the traditional carriers and even the ‘traditional’ OTT service providers is doubtful, but we can certainly envisage many millions of talk and video minutes being transported over WebRTC in the next few years, and unless the carriers and large service providers get creative they won’t be the ones collecting the revenue on this new technology.
2. WebRTC is innovative but not Creative
Walking around the conference it was very clear that the message from the engineers was that WebRTC is definitely an innovative communication technology, and it is being provided so that creative developers can imagine and build the next generation of business communication solutions. It now requires solution providers to come up with creative new ways to engage users in innovative new business communication applications. If we look back throughout history however, we see that mankind has followed a pattern of adoption of new “medium” such as WebRTC in a rather predictable way.
The first instinct is to compare it to the thing it most closely resembles, and then to use this new medium to replicate and replace the same functionality as the old/existing medium. Only some time after that do we begin to get creative and to imagine the new applications and models that can be realized through the new medium. I like to think we have all gotten smarter, and that our learning curve is getting shorter, but as I look back at some of the recent internet history I see some of the same “mistakes” occurring now that occurred with mediums in the past (Social Media is one example). I guess my message here is that the game changing applications will be something new that we haven’t seen before rather than simple replacements of existing applications.
From the exhibitors at the Conference it was clear that the creativity will definitely be present, with some exciting new solutions being shown in online meetings, unified communications and video conferencing. In the end WebRTC is a replacement of other technologies, which within their own silos of followers has already made real-time communication possible in the web (through plugins). WebRTC, with its ubiquity and standardization, should be a catalyst that will drive availability and adoption of creative new solutions in the market. This is bound to create a whole new breed of communications vendors and solutions.
3. WebRTC for Mobile is hard but worth the effort
One of the questions and one of the disappointments at the conference was the realization that WebRTC for mobile devices is not there yet. With communications solutions and business solutions in general moving very rapidly to mobile devices for delivery, it would have been natural to assume that a new disruptive communications technology would appear first in mobile devices.
There are several reasons that WebRTC for mobile is difficult to do (though not impossible). The lack of chip level support for the VP8 codec is one example of this difficulty. One of the speakers at the conference noted that running a multi-participant video conference on a mobile device, using software VP8 codec, would be a great way to melt the device. All joking aside, this is a serious problem since the standards’ bodies are still not decided on the mandatory video codecs that will be specified. For mobile devices H.264 is a great choice, since it is already in virtually every mobile chipset in the market today and I don’t expect to see VP8 with the same level of support in the short term.
4. WebRTC needs to integrate with existing business communication systems
Another popular subject of interest was interoperability with existing communication standards. WebRTC will provide a great platform for many new communications applications to be embedded into websites and other web based applications, and in many cases these can be complete end-to-end solutions using WebRTC. Companies today, however, have already made a huge investment in their communication systems for customer interaction, such as call centers, CRM integration, etc., and for their own workforce.
These investments will not be thrown away, and WebRTC will not be successful if it does not integrate into these environments. From a technical perspective this isn’t so much of a problem of WebRTC itself, but it is a problem to be solved in the applications and systems integration level. WebRTC does not specify any signaling protocol, but applications can implement whatever signaling they need or chose to use; the media channel is “mostly compatible” with other standards, but someone has to think about transcoding challenges to really make it work and though WebRTC uses Session Description Protocol (SDP), there will be nuances and differences as compared to other standards that will make inter working challenging.
Several solutions to this problem were present at the expo, including gateway solutions from Vidtel, as well as SBC vendors showing support for WebRTC in their devices, where such signaling and media transcoding challenges are typically addressed.
5. WebRTC is coming to a browser near you
WebRTC should be available as a standard in your favorite browsers by the end of 2012, although some features such as data channels are lagging a little behind. Google Chrome, Mozilla and Opera will be the first available, and in fact all have some level of usable support for WebRTC today. Microsoft and Apple are pursuing their own paths here, but WebRTC plugins are currently available for these browsers also (although that really defeats much of the point).
6. WebRTC is not a “one size fits all”
WebRTC is a great addition to the communications technology offerings list, but it’s certainly not going to replace everything. In some of the sessions questions were asked about regulations and features such as 911 and lawful intercept. I’m sure these features will need to be addressed at some time int he future, but we really would be missing the point if we try to use WebRTC to replace all of our traditional communications infrastructure and services.
I believe WebRTC will have its biggest impact in customer facing web solutions that extend companies’ customer service and sales capabilities. The fact that it can extend real-time communications to web browsers in a standard way will surely fuel the invention of many new and creative solutions for communication and collaboration.
From my perspective the WebRTC conference was one of the best investments of my time. At Daitan we’ve been following the emergence of this new technology and engaging in development from the beginning in the belief that it can and will have a huge impact in the development and deployment of many new communications solutions. It was great to see the early adopters at the conference (including some of our own customers) demonstrate the creative ways that WebRTC can change the world.