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Path to UC via WebRTC?

After shivering through a cold winter, I may have a touch of spring fever, but I actually believe that our industry is entering a period of major innovation. There are multiple signs--new options for UC, exciting new technologies like WebRTC and SDN and, perhaps most importantly, an influx of new people on both the buyer's and seller's side of the table.

When it comes to UC, I confess to being involved in an on-again/off-again kind of relationship. On the one hand, for my generation, UC represents telecom's Holy Grail. The driving force for much of the past 25 years has been about consolidating heretofore separate facilities for voice, video and data into more streamlined and, yes, I'll use the word, "unified" (read: rational) communications network systems and services.

The first step was at the transport level--T1s enabled integrated access and transmission--and then in the '90s, high-speed packet switching gave us a way to make integrated switching a reality. We began trying to integrate applications in the early '90s with CTI, but it was too expensive and too kludgy to catch on anywhere outside of the contact center.

UC was to have been the means by which integrated apps would go mainstream; and maybe, someday, that prophesy will be fulfilled. But in the meantime, wireless devices--smartphones and tablets--are bringing integrated apps to the masses, and part of the enthusiasm for WebRTC is its potential to take integrated apps to the next plateau.

I confess that my first impression of WebRTC was that it was a frontal assault on Skype but, while I still believe that, WebRTC has quite a few other dimensions; well, it could, provided we don't screw things up.

Skype is a fantastic tool, but it remains proprietary, and I doubt Microsoft paid $8.5 billion to take it into the public domain. The challenge WebRTC has is how to evolve into an open system, and that's not going to be easy. Vendors coming to WebRTC from a telephony perspective are worried about how to protect their desktop business--phones still account for a huge chunk of their revenue. At Enterprise Connect 2013, I spoke with a dozen or more executives from telecom companies, nearly all of whom expressed enthusiasm for WebRTC's capabilities, but all of whom were worried because they hadn't yet figured out a monetization scheme.

Google, which has been a major champion of WebRTC, doesn't face this problem--neither does Mozilla. So, not surprisingly, Google's Chrome and Mozilla's FireFox are the first browsers to deliver WebRTC capability. Meanwhile, emerging middlemen, like Twilio, Voxeo and Thrupoint, also aren't worried about protecting an installed base of devices and they're moving rapidly too.

In short, WebRTC embodies all of the elements of a major disruption: It's a software product (read: relatively inexpensive to create), that's being backed by companies that either have deep pockets or are nimble enough to ride the WebRTC wave however far it can take them.

Perhaps most importantly, WebRTC will target folks who welcome fresh alternatives. In the consumer market, this seems like a sure winner. It's essentially free and requires no downloads or other time killers.

WebRTC is likely to stir interest on the enterprise side as well. While many of the folks who run enterprise telecom or IT come from a telecom background, many more don't. And it's that latter group that is growing in size. The bias is going against traditional phone-based solutions, and while they certainly won't disappear any time soon, browser-based alternatives are much more in keeping with the times; WebRTC will find a receptive audience in enterprises among both decision-makers and end users.

But WebRTC's promise won't be fulfilled if it turns proprietary--the WebRTC game has got to be open. If it becomes yet another brick in an equipment or service provider's walled garden, the game is over. Microsoft claims to support WebRTC even as it lobbies for a codec that favors its technology and installed base. Apple, the ultimate walled gardener, hasn't said boo publicly about WebRTC. If WebRTC becomes either more difficult or expensive to use with IE and if Safari stays on the sideline, WebRTC will lose much of its luster.

The good news is that the stage is set. Chipsets are sufficiently fast and cheap to enable just about any UC scenario to be fulfilled. As communications and collaboration technologies become more multi-modal, the silos within enterprise IT become more porous and less formidable, and a new generation of IT leaders, unencumbered by the legacy of "how things used to be," is ready to seize the day.

There really is cause for optimism, but the ball is in the court of the vendor/developer community. Lord knows they've had a long and often unpleasant slog toward a UC future; maybe it's time they stop holding on to the assumptions that's kept them--and all the rest of us--bogged down.