As I mentioned in a previous post, at the recent Enterprise Connect event the buzz around WebRTC was pretty much unavoidable. One demo that really caught my eye was from Interactive Intelligence, which was showing a new cloud-based tool called PureCloud Collaborate that makes heavy use of WebRTC.
I was intrigued enough with the demo, and the WebRTC-centric functionality, that I followed up with Jeff Platón, chief marketing officer for the company, to learn more about what led the company to build a product based on WebRTC and how the process went. Our conversation (which you can listen to in its entirety on this podcast) ranged from WebRTC’s current, rather fluid standards status to use cases where the protocol does and does not make sense.
WebRTC Standards – The Dance of Elephants
With respect to its standards status, Platón had an apt description of what’s happening with WebRTC.
‘It’s a fascinating dance of elephants that’s happening across Google, Microsoft and Apple for that matter, all of whom are not aligned on developing a standard,” he said. While he says Google and Microsoft have both produced “meaningful work that’s really progressed the state of the WebRTC art,” he says Google is advancing the protocol the fastest. That’s because Google has a different incentive than either Microsoft or Apple: to help Chrome become the preferred Web browser, with Firefox as runner-up.
“It’s the browser preference that they’re looking for to support their advertising models,” Platón says. That’s an old story, as vendors have always sought to steer standards in a direction that favors their products, and in this case it is strategically important to Google as they work to advance their ChromeOS operating system.
And the result he expects this time is likewise a familiar one. “We really don’t see a ‘unified standard’ coming out of the WebRTC work,” he says. “What you’re more likely to see are different variants from each of those vendors that have some slightly different incentives for seeing or not seeing WebRTC come to the marketplace.”
Simplifying WebRTC Deployments, Regardless of Browser
If that sounds like it may make WebRTC difficult to deploy, well yes, it could. But there are ways to mask the differences in WebRTC offerings and make them play nice with whatever users may have.
That’s the tack Interactive Intelligence is taking with respect to WebRTC. Rather than making users commit to using only a single browser, and hence that single version of WebRTC, the company is building apps for Windows, OS X and mobile devices that enable users to run any browser underneath and still use WebRTC.
“We’re managing all the complexity underneath the user interface,” Platón says. “It simplifies what users need to do, which is really nothing. Use a browser or an app on the device of your choice – business PC or Mac or mobile device – and it just works. We think that’s the new gold standard – it just works and I don’t have to do anything else.”
Determining When WebRTC is “Good Enough” and for Whom
WebRTC also enabled Interactive Intelligence to put together its PureCloud Collaborate service more quickly than would have otherwise been possible. From a single interface, the service enables users to find others they want to communicate with, determine whether they’re available, and quickly launch a chat window, voice or video call. The service also includes a Dropbox-like file sharing capability and screen sharing. And by the way, they are offering this initial PureCloud solution for free.
The original plan was to rely on traditional IP PBX-based services to support just voice calls, he said. “But the rapidly evolving state of WebRTC enabled us to bring forward services that allowed for videoconferencing and Web screen share,” he said.
That said, Platón does not expect such a “pure” WebRTC-based platform will be suitable for all users, especially when enterprise voice communications are taken into consideration. At that point, businesses require greater resiliency, meaning the ability to communicate even when no Internet connection is available. They also want advanced features such as call recording and E-911, that WebRTC doesn’t yet support. Such users will require a more traditional UC platform, which they will be providing shortly with the next PureCloud offering, Communicate.
But it’s not an either/or proposition, even within a single company.
“Large companies may have a segment of users for which WebRTC is just fine; they don’t need more advanced features,” he says. “And it’s a whole lot less expensive to deliver communications and collaboration for that segment.”
Consider education, for example. WebRTC’s over-the-top functionality may work wonderfully for the student population, while teachers and administrators may require more advanced features.
How quickly WebRTC catches on in the market will depend largely on how willing companies are to segment their user requirements, Platón says, and determine where WebRTC is indeed “good enough.”