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Is WebRTC Really the Cat's Pajamas?

Some time ago in a No Jitter article, Tsahi Levent-Levi wrote that you should "get acquainted with WebRTC. It is going to change everything and anything you know about your market." More recently Eric Krapf wrote about WebRTC as an always available "voice as spice" communication channel, there whenever you were in a browser. In his article, Eric recounts a conversation with Anant Narayanan of Mozilla Labs, where Anant suggests you just can't predict what's going to emerge once WebRTC gets released.

But is WebRTC really the "cat's pajamas" and by that, I mean, is WebRTC "great, incredible or special. Usually indicating stylishness or innovation."? (per Urban Dictionary). I say "no," WebRTC is neither the cat's pajamas nor the cat's meow. On the other hand, WebRTC is not the dog's breakfast, either.

WebRTC may become a building block that is used as a small part of complete communication and collaboration systems; however WebRTC will not itself be the foundation for these solutions, nor is WebRTC a "game changer" in the way that federation can be.

Here are a few current problems with WebRTC:

1. Almost no browsers support WebRTC--Perhaps in the future more browsers will support WebRTC but right now (according to Wikipedia):

* The Opera browser supports WebRTC
* Only a developer version of Google Chrome supports WebRTC
* Mozilla Firefox supports a "demo" version of WebRTC with full support perhaps in January 2013
* Microsoft is "thinking about" adding WebRTC support to Internet Explorer.

This means that as of August 2012, browser statistics support for WebRTC is only available for 4.59% of browser users--hardly a ubiquitous capability! While it is important to "look ahead" and it is nice to be optimistic, for end-users my rule is: "To be successful, in order to be able to evaluate options and make a choice, you need to force yourself to make a point-in-time decision. You must evaluate the options first and foremost based on the here and now" (as I wrote in The Goldilocks Approach: 7 Steps to Get to 'Just Right'").

WebRTC may be one possible future, but is not the today's solution.

2. The WebRTC standard is not yet finalized--And while almost no browsers (percentage-wise) support the WebRTC standard, it is important to understand that WebRTC itself is not yet a standard but rather a "draft" work-in-progress definition. According to the site: "WebRTC is based on an API that is still under development through efforts at WHATWG, W3C and IETF. We hope to get to a stable API once a few browser vendors have implementations ready for testing."

I am not saying that WebRTC is a bad idea; however, until a standard is finalized and supported by a sufficiently large number of vendors, we all still run the risk of the VHS-versus-BetaMax videocassette format wars or the more recent HD DVD versus Blue-ray disc format wars. WebRTC may not necessarily win the fight. As recently as August 2012, Microsoft submitted a competing WebRTC proposed standard CU-RTC-Web. I still contend that "market dominance" is often the path to interoperability and standards adoption.

3. WebRTC doesn't handle any signalling--At some point while communicating, you need to exchange media between parties; however, this is only part of the entire effective communication process. In its entirety, effective communication is about finding the appropriate person, determining when/if they are available and what communication modality is best suited for information exchange, connecting the necessary parties (increasingly more than two) and then, and only then, exchanging text, voice, video and/or shared document media.

WebRTC primarily addresses the technical aspect of encoding and decoding exchanged voice and video media (i.e. WebRTC is primarily focused on "codecs").

4. WebRTC is really just a "pre-download download"--Much is made of the fact that to use WebRTC you do not need to download anything--of course this assumes that browsers people use eventually support WebRTC.

But really, even if WebRTC is standardized and adopted more broadly in the future, I am not convinced that WebRTC is more than a pre-installed browser add-in.

And in any case, is the alternative--a one-time download of an application or add-in--really stopping communications from occurring? Skype, which has achieved 43 million concurrent users and has had over 560 million people download and use Skype (at least once) would seem to prove otherwise.

Also in the "corporate world", the Microsoft Lync 2013 Web App (available as a working preview) already allows both PC and Mac users to join a Lync Meeting from a browser and enjoy the rich Lync Meeting experience, including multiparty HD video; voice over IP (VoIP); instant messaging; and desktop, application, and PowerPoint sharing. Yes, it may require a one-time download, just like Skype--or Microsoft may choose to pre-install this capability with Windows 8. As an added bonus, Lync 2013 federates with Skype, potentially giving you more than a billion people you can communicate with.

So why the excitement related to WebRTC?

To a developer, WebRTC is an interesting and exciting javascript-based API (application programming interface). This means if I am a developer, I can download a beta browser version and experiment writing some nifty javascript code so I can exchange voice and video with some of my other technically astute friends.

And you can then do some interesting things by writing more code such as face detection and video effects; however, right now any of these interesting things require a significant investment of time to get the technical setup just right, and really are merely proofs of concept.

So developers are excited, they can write and show some specialized demos that are unlikely to become production versions of anything and yet they do "look" good. Thus the "buzz" around WebRTC.

Agree? Disagree? Please post a comment. You can also comment and follow me on twitter >@kkieller.