The rumble around WebRTC is getting a bit louder with the likes of Microsoft announcing its support last week for a native implementation of the protocol within its Internet Explorer browser.A post on the Internet Explorer blog site sums up Microsoft’s intentions:
We aim to make browser-based calls more convenient by removing the need to download a plugin. It’s all about convenience – imagine you’ll be able to simply open IE and make a Skype call to friends, family, or get real-time support for that new device right from your browser.
Well, maybe, so long as whoever you’re calling is also using IE. As is so often the case with industry “standards,” vendors are implementing more than one flavor of WebRTC and, of course, the two are not interoperable. And then there’s all the existing unified communications (UC) infrastructure that companies have deployed which you may also want to be able to connect to, or from.
Background and Update on WebRTC
WebRTC, for Real-time Communications, promises to enable audio, video and data communications in a peer-to-peer fashion from directly within a web browser; there will be no need for a phone, IP-based PBX, UC server or any other infrastructure. As the Microsoft statement suggests, it’s like Skype but with no Skype app required; just a browser.
But the reality of how WebRTC is shaping up is far more complicated, says Ingrid Tremblay, Senior Product Line Manager at Sonus Networks.
On one hand, we’ve got competing camps in terms of which video codec to support. The Google-led camp favors VP8, a Google-developed codec that is now open source and free for all to use. Microsoft will be using the H.264 video codec, which is commonly deployed in existing video gear but requires software developers and service providers to pay a royalty to implement. That royalty covers more than 1,000 patents from at least a couple dozen companies whose technology is wrapped up in H.264, according to this post from ZDNet.
So, two Google Chrome users could have a video call with each other from their browsers with no problem, Tremblay says. But if a Chrome user wants to call an IE user, now you’ll need some kind of transcoding to make it work. That means the call will have to pass through a media server or session border controller to conduct the translation, she says. Eventually, she thinks browsers will incorporate both codecs; time will tell.
Apple, by the way, has not yet announced firm WebRTC plans for Safari, saying only that it will support the standard. But its latest operating system, OS X 10.10 (Yosemite), does support calls and texts directly from the Mac, but phone calls are actually placed over the mobile phone. (Frankly, I’ve struggled to get it to work right since upgrading a week ago and have found it more annoying than helpful so far.)
Another issue is when a user with a WebRTC-enabled browser wants to connect to a video call with someone who’s using traditional video tools from the likes of Polycom, Cisco, Microsoft, Citrix or what-have-you. Here again, you’ll need a Session Border Controller (SBC) or some other translation device to make it happen, she says. And given that companies aren’t likely to toss out all their UC infrastructure any time soon, it’s a safe bet that sort of translation will be going on for a good, long while.
Where Do Things Stand With Early WebRTC Applications
Still, we are starting to see some WebRTC-based applications and services in the market, Tremblay says.
“We’re in the early stages,” she explains. “Certainly in the lab people have brought in Web RTC and service providers are playing with it. Some are using it and building services. In 2015 we’ll see more and more coming out.”
Right now, larger service providers are jockeying to gain traction for their own APIs, to get developers to create applications that will work with them.
On the other hand, hundreds of “pure play” WebRTC players are out in the market offering all sorts of services, Tremblay notes. She mentioned a talent agency in California that offers video chats with sports and TV personalities via WebRTC sessions, for a fee.
Another example is JurisLink, which offers a secure videoconferencing service that enables defense attorneys to talk to their clients who are in prison. The company originally launched the service using Microsoft Lync, but even the limited configuration steps it required proved to be too much, according to this case study quoting JurisLink President Slade Trabucco:
“Any download, update, or configuration steps – such as turning microphones and cameras on and off – tended to confuse the users. When we moved to a WebRTC-based platform, these barriers melted away. The attorney simply opens the meeting link on their computer or tablet at the scheduled time, and the conference just works.”
“Just works” sounds pretty good. So how soon can we expect such apps to be widespread?
“You’ll see more and more apps popping up,” Tremblay says. “There will also be many more enterprises taking advantage of services being made available in 2016 and beyond.”