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5 Threats That Could Derail WebRTC

There is a lot of excitement and conversation about WebRTC--for good reason. For the past decade, UC solutions have extended rich real-time communications to desktops and mobile devices via required applications and browser plugins. WebRTC offers the promise of a free standardized and ubiquitous endpoint--pre-installed within every desktop and mobile browser. It is potentially the single biggest initiative to make any-to-any real time communications (voice, presence, video, and desktop sharing) a reality.

The questions are when, and as with all futures, how likely will it deliver as expected?

WebRTC is still an idea, or at best a draft. It is available for Chrome and Firefox, but far from being a ubiquitous and reliable solution for real time communications. The awareness and momentum of WebRTC is rapidly building, but it is not by any means a done deal. Many UC vendors are evaluating WebRTC, and testing it within their labs. Some solutions are already being billed as WebRTC compliant.

Unfortunately, many "cures all ills" solutions fail to deliver. The reality is WebRTC faces an uncertain future. Here is a look at some of the bigger threats that could derail it.

Microsoft: WebRTC didn't just happen, it's largely been spearheaded by Google. Google has a vested interest in an open Web, and has sponsored many solutions and standards that help promote the Web as a platform. However, WebRTC doesn't benefit all vendors, nor does yielding to Google. Microsoft and Google are fierce competitors with numerous battles including Bing/Google Search and Microsoft Office/Google Apps.

Microsoft has already raised objections to Google's proposed VP8 Codec, which resulted in slowing down WebRTC's march to being an approved standard. Google has added its version of WebRTC into Chrome, but Microsoft has not added any version to Internet Explorer. The codec issue is the most visible part of the disagreement, but many believe WebRTC poses a threat to Skype. Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for Skype, thus if it perceives WebRTC as a threat to it, then it clearly has a lot of incentive to stall a technology that could devalue its Skype investment.

Related: New News on the codec front: MPEGLA to drop claims on VP8.

Apple: The last time there was a ubiquitous video solution for the browser, Apple single-handedly killed it. It was known as Adobe Flash, and until a few years ago was widely deployed across the Internet on content-providing servers as the leading technology for streaming video.

Where does Apple stand on WebRTC? Apple hasn't revealed its position yet. We do know that nothing goes on an iPad or iPhone without Apple's consent, and this poses a major threat to WebRTC ubiquity. It should be noted that until Microsoft recently objected to the VP8 codec issue, Microsoft's position was also unknown. It is thought that Microsoft and Apple are likely to agree on the preference for the H.264 codec within WebRTC's core configuration. In other words, Microsoft and Apple may align against the version currently available in Chrome.

Fragmentation: The power of WebRTC lies in being a ubiquitous standardized solution for all browsers. A technology that any application could leverage. However, this goes out the window if the vendors implement their own versions/interpretations of WebRTC.

Most applications available today are built around Google's vision because it is available in Chrome. But should Microsoft and Apple implement different interpretations/visions of WebRTC, then the common denominator theme gets lost. Users and developers will need to specify versions and/or browsers to ensure compatibility--a negligible improvement over the plugin and application model of today.

Quality: The bar that determines acceptable quality continues to rise. HD video and HD audio are now common. New 4K television displays and Apple's Retina displays already raised the perceptions of what HD video should look like. Can WebRTC keep up? Will people use WebRTC solutions if the quality is compromised?

WebRTC has specified the narrowband audio standard G,.711--already a step backwards from most VoIP solutions. Wideband audio is already appearing on mobile networks--will a mobile call offer higher quality audio than a WebRTC call? If WebRTC doesn't offer high-quality voice and video comparable to other solutions, it will be an unacceptable compromise for many. Plugins and applications may be secure as preferred solutions in the name of quality.

Attitudes: Many people already find video chats to be too invasive into private homes. Are everyday end users ready to allow their camera and microphones to be controlled remotely? Some will just say no.

It isn't just about video either--many websites today offer live chat, but many users still prefer the toll free number. Yes, WebRTC may offer richer communication, but communication requires at least two consenting parties. Another way of looking at this is how many people are reluctant to give out their phone numbers. Those that value their privacy and prefer to communicate on their own terms, will not accept WebRTC. How and when the camera gets activated or if you can activate just the microphone are part of a learning curve that takes time.

Putting a rich UC endpoint into the browser doesn't mean anyone will use it. It takes time for attitudes to shift.

WebRTC is exciting. It would be nice to see it live up to the potential it offers, which is that of a ubiquitous rich endpoint. The technologies already exist for rich voice, IM, presence, video, and desktop sharing over the Internet. What is new and exciting about WebRTC is a common framework that democratizes access to unified communications.

There are several risks that could prevent WebRTC from living up to its goal of ubiquity. It has a long way to go, and its future largely lies in the hands of major vendors that don't agree on much. It is important to consider the very real threats that could derail it, at least momentarily between the bouts of hype.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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