More than a few prognosticators have identified WebRTC as one of the tech innovations that will make a big difference in the coming year—and with good reason. Several major firms—Google, Microsoft, Citrix—have WebRTC initiatives underway, anticipating that the technology will find widespread use for consumer and business applications.
WebRTC (the RTC stands for real-time communication) is a framework that allows developers to embed real-time audio and video communication in browser-based and mobile applications. Google released WebRTC as an open-source project in 2011 and it has been picking up steam ever since, with browser developers Mozilla and Opera coming on board.
How will WebRTC reshape the technology landscape in 2015?
“The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan
It’s often difficult to predict exactly how a new technology will impact an industry and the culture at large. When, in 1964, he famously wrote, “The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan meant that the most significant effect of a new medium (such as a new communication technology) on the environment in which it’s released is often a result of the characteristics of the medium itself, not necessarily the content the medium conveys.
In the case of WebRTC, most industry observers are looking at how it will shake up existing services like telecommunications, online chat, and remote conferencing. And indeed, that shakeup is well underway. Skype is working on a WebRTC powered, web-based version of its service, for example, and services like appear.in, talky.io, and apprtc already use the technology to provide browser-based video chat. On the mobile front, Amazon is already using WebRTC to provide instant real-time tech support for its Fire devices through its Mayday service.
Clearly, there is a great benefit to embedding real-time audio and video in web and mobile applications without plugins. But, the fact remains that real-time audio and video already exist (albeit, with plugins). The real value of WebRTC won’t be in simply enhancing existing applications. The true message—to use McLuhan’s terms—of the medium of WebRTC has yet to be seen. We might not understand its full ramifications until it is supported by all browsers and developers begin to take full advantage of its potential to provide real-time communication, anywhere and anytime.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that might happen in 2015 to get us to that point.
WebRTC in the New Year
One of the most promising developments for WebRTC is that Microsoft has confirmed it will support the ORTC API for WebRTC in a future version of its Internet Explorer browser, joining Google (the maker of Chrome) and Mozilla (the maker of Firefox), which already support it. This will not only increase interoperability between the browsers in 2015, but it will also expand the technology to a much wider swath of the general public (with the notable exception of Apple Safari users).
Any browsers that add support for WebRTC in 2015 must also support both the VP8 and H.264 video codecs. Long a sticking point between them, WebRTC collaborators reached a compromise on video codecs in November. This was significant because, without a common codec, the dream of simple peer-to-peer applications or even “simple or lightweight” applications may have died. The need for transcoding would introduce and expensive middleman that would “kill” many peer-to-peer services.
Mobile support for WebRTC undoubtedly improved in 2014, as many chipset vendors started offering hardware-based support for VP8, which boosts performance and battery life. However, most WebRTC platform vendors are still focused on offering SDKs for building local applications. To achieve the vision of browser-based, ubiquitous real-time communication, this local mode of thinking needs to change in 2015.
Finally, we have already seen some consolidation in the market and acquisitions that indicate that major companies are taking WebRTC seriously. For example, telecom giant Telefonica bought TokBox—creator of the WebRTC video platform OpenTok—in 2013, Yahoo acquired WebRTC startup PeerCDN, and Snapchat acquired AddLive. We expect more such acquisitions in 2015. Meanwhile, the leaders in WebRTC technology, will become stronger.
Will 2015 be the year for WebRTC?
We expect that WebRTC will continue to gain strength in 2015 and will start to become a necessary element of consumer and business applications for communication and collaboration. But we don’t think it will necessarily be the year that WebRTC drives a new mode of engagement and interaction throughout the Internet-using world.
Bill Gates said once, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.” We think this applies to WebRTC.
As the technology is refined and standards are agreed upon and adopted, most of the soon-to-come applications of WebRTC will be the obvious ones: web conferencing, video chat, and so forth. The really interesting developments, the ones that will take a robust technology and apply it in exciting and unforeseen ways, are still a few years off.