Laurent  Philonenko
Laurent Philonenko, vice president and chief technology officer of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, is responsible for strategy and direction of...
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Laurent Philonenko | May 30, 2013 |


The Reality of WebRTC...All Hype?

The Reality of WebRTC...All Hype? Actually, WebRTC is the biggest change we face today. The full impact is probably 2 years out--but it's coming. Here are the critical issues still to be resolved.

Actually, WebRTC is the biggest change we face today. The full impact is probably 2 years out--but it's coming. Here are the critical issues still to be resolved.

WebRTC is the single largest technology change that is happening to the web today and will unleash a new wave of communications innovations; it will likely impact you whether you are a technologist, marketer, or user. When done, the WebRTC standard will allow the creation of browser-based applications for interactive real-time communications (RTC) with voice, video and data. Just as VoIP changed the way we communicate, WebRTC's has the potential to change how we communicate and collaborate. Bringing-real time communications to the web is a sea change. As I see it, WebRTC brings smartphone power to a browser.

For years, web applications such as Facebook have enabled mass sharing of status updates and photos, but beyond that there is not much available for real-time interactions. The few interactive technologies deployed through the web such as WebEx or Skype rely on downloadable plug-ins or clients, which are hard for an application developer to create and deploy for a myriad of devices and users.

Three things make WebRTC an interesting and significant technology development for both technologists and specially businesses.

* Device: Instead of worrying about compatibility and interoperability of hundreds of possible devices, the focus switches to using a common standard across a handful of browsers.

* Development: The standards make it easy to develop voice and video applications. You do not have to be a telecommunications expert; and there is no need to rewrite or develop access for each device.

* Deployment: It is easy to deploy to large numbers of users by just updating your web application; no need for plug-ins or application downloads.

That said, I suggest you proceed with caution. Today WebRTC's capabilities are not yet complete, as the standard is far from done. WebRTC is still missing answers for things like error discovery and reporting. These are needed for a production quality system. More foundational are three critical interoperability issues that need to be resolved:

* Standard video codec: There are many codec standards for compressing and decompressing video, and the standards team is debating between VP8 and H.264. Most browsers can support both codecs, but to ensure interoperability, the industry needs to converge on one standard codec.

* ICE protocol for media transport: WebRTC uses the Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) protocol to set up peer connections across firewalls or network address translators (NATs). ICE is a critical part of the standard that will allow B2B and B2C communications; however today's challenge is that not all voice and video endpoints are ICE-enabled. Typically enterprise phones do not use ICE, so a gateway is needed between them and the WebRTC browser.

* Security Keys approach: Currently, the browsers and standards only support the Datagram Transport Layer Security-Secure Real-Time Transport Protocol (DTLS-SRTP) for setting up keys to secure media; today most existing phones and video endpoints use Session Description Protocol Security Descriptions (SDES). Extending WebRTC to support SDES as well as DTLS-SRTP is a priority.

Is WebRTC Ready for Prime Time?
Several browsers have implemented the current version of WebRTC and have demonstrated interoperability, and some application developers are building apps for this version. Not all browsers have implemented WebRTC and not all have indicated their support for the standard yet. Chrome and Firefox are fully committed to WebRTC and their active implementation is evolving as the standards evolve. Apple and Microsoft have yet to announce their intentions.

However, WebRTC is not quite ready for prime time. Simply put, the standards are not done. Assume the WebRTC standards completion is still one year out, and that it takes six months for Chrome and Firefox to ship a browser with the final standards; plus add the time for people to upgrade their browsers. We'll see early implementations before, but I'd say it's two-plus years before this technology is widely deployed in the market.

The bottom line, however, is that WebRTC takes communications and collaboration to the next level; it provides a simple, ubiquitous, and rapid deployment method that only the web platform can provide. It is exciting to see a new technology transition in the making--through standards, open source, and partnerships.

If you are in the business of communications or collaboration and you intend to catch this transition, you better be paying close attention to this standard.


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