WebRTC Post-Mortem: Looking at the Good & the Bad
This year's Enterprise Connect WebRTC Conference-Within-a-Conference highlighted tangible use cases, as well as the continued browser constraints.
At this year's Enterprise Connect WebRTC Conference-within-a-Conference, speakers touched on a theme familiar to anyone who has been following the technology's evolution for the last few years: "The great promise of WebRTC constrained by continued lack of ubiquitous browser support." Here are my key takeaways:
- Vendor battles over WebRTC standards development are subsiding – Google has joined the W3C's ORTC development efforts and committed to provide H.264 support in Chrome, while Microsoft is supporting ORTC in Edge. This means we are nearing the day when WebRTC support is widely available across three of the world's four most popular browsers (Chrome, Edge, and FireFox). Still out there is Safari, with Apple yet to commit to supporting WebRTC 1.0 or ORTC/WebRTC 1.1/WebRTC Next Version (NV).
- Going forward, standards development remains murky – Microsoft and partners, including Hookflash, continue to drive ORTC as the successor to WebRTC. They're replacing WebRTC's session description protocol with ORTC, arguing that it provides a simpler, and more flexible programming interface for developer use. In his keynote, Hookflash Co-founder Eric Lagerway noted that within the W3C, the WebRTC working group (WG) is aligning with ORTC development. However, ORTC and WebRTC remain separate development efforts, likely with differing browser and vendor support, for the foreseeable future -- especially as the WebRTC WG focuses its efforts on WebRTC NV (see related article, "Getting Real on RTC in the Enterprise").
- WebRTC is rapidly emerging as an embedded technology – As several speakers noted, WebRTC-based solutions are rapidly entering the market, but largely contained within dedicated apps. While this WebRTC usage doesn't represent the vision of browser-based, plug-in/app-free access to real-time communications that formed the basis of initial interest in WebRTC, it is providing app developers with an easy path to building rich media apps, or adding rich media to their existing apps.
- It's time to pay attention to WebRTC performance management – Varun Singh, CEO of callstats.io, gave an enlightening presentation on real-world performance of WebRTC apps, noting that about 10% of call setups fail and roughly 20% of calls fail while in progress. He further noted that nearly a quarter of calls require NAT traversal, and that 76% of the time a user will not rejoin when dropped from a call. These data points imply that, as is usually the case with any new real-time communications technology, implementers aren't paying enough attention to performance management.
- Video codec issues remain – Google may have announced support for Open264 (Cisco's open-source H.264 project) in Chrome, as I mentioned above, but it continues to focus development efforts on VP8/VP9. Meantime, other vendors prefer aligning with H.264/265 to ensure easy integration with existing video conferencing equipment and hardware acceleration available on Apple mobile devices. While the IETF agreed to mandate browser support for both VP8 and H.264, vendors still have no good path forward from H.264 to H.265 due to licensing issues, and no mandate for VP9 support. The Alliance for Open Media (AOM), launched last August with backing by Cisco, Google, Intel, and others, hopes to create a universal royalty-free codec -- but that is likely a year or more away.
- WebRTC isn't a distraction, but real issues remain – It's true that, roughly five years after its introduction, WebRTC hasn't reached the ubiquitous browser availability with a complete set of standardized codecs. However, a growing cadre of developers is increasingly leveraging it to bring voice, video, and content sharing to browsers and standalone apps more easily than they could using previous technologies.
So what's the state of WebRTC five years out? The bottom line is that WebRTC is here today in many applications used by people who don't realize (or don't care) that they're using it. With Microsoft increasing its support for WebRTC, and the likely joining of ORTC and WebRTC in the future, standards organizations and vendors continue to take steps toward realizing the vision of any browser-to-any browser, plug-in free, rich-media communications. Hopefully by Enterprise Connect 2017 we'll no longer need to focus on "when" and can turn all our attention to "how."