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Tangled Up in WebRTC Blue

To the WebRTC purists out there, your world won’t end if you let an old, boring telephone be the recipient of a WebRTC call.

One of the most famous moments in rock n' roll history occurred on July 25th, 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. That was when Bob Dylan, darling of the folk music crowd, appeared for the first time on stage with an electric guitar and new songs to go along with it. The set was short, but loud, raucous and full of songs decisively different than anything anyone had ever before heard . Cheers from fans who were ready for the new Dylan competed with the "boos" and cries of "Judas" from those who weren't. For this latter group of folks -- the purists in the crowd -- his performance was sacrilegious and profane.

This experience came to mind in the response to my recent No Jitter post, When the Session Border Controller Became the Toaster. In it, I expressed how tired I was of SBC vendors touting the number of sessions supported by their products and bragging that they did SIP adaptation and deep packet inspection. While those are essential aspects of an SBC, they're completely expected and nothing to write home about.

WebRTC Purists
I anticipated pushback from SBC manufacturers, but, surprisingly, I found they were supportive of what I'd written and even took the opportunity to impress me with their differences.

What I didn't expect was the serious flak I received from the WebRTC enthusiasts who feel that an SBC doesn't belong in the same room as their beloved technology. They were appalled by the idea of associating WebRTC with something as crude as traditional telephony. The idea of transcoding from Opus to G.711 is as inconceivable to them as Dylan strapping on a Fender Stratocaster was to folk music purists.

Before I go any further, I need to make it perfectly clear that I am a big fan of WebRTC. The idea of HTTP-based real-time communications excites me as much as anything has in the past several years. I even took the time to delve into the API, write my own WebRTC application, and learn all that I could about this transformational technology.

However, I also live in a world where not every communications endpoint is a PC, laptop, or mobile device. I work across the country with enterprises that have invested millions in physical telephones, TDM gateways, and every conceivable appliance and server associated with legacy telephony. I also meet with and assist companies that have jumped feet first into SIP, virtualization, and multimedia communications.

Are the IT directors and telecom managers of these enterprises interested in WebRTC and the promise that it offers? Absolutely. At the same time, they understand the state of their communications systems and are not about to jettison a rock-solid solution for one that is clearly still on the drawing board.

Still, they aren't going to sit on the sidelines and watch WebRTC pass them by either. Instead, they are designing solutions that leverage current investments while throwing serious weight and mindshare behind this new form of communications.

This brings me back to the SBC. While a WebRTC purist might shudder at the thought of someone sitting down at a PC, launching a Web browser, navigating to a WebRTC-enabled page, and launching a call to a contact center agent using a (heaven forbid) digital telephone, it makes me want to jump up and down and shout, "Hooray!"

You see, I can get really excited about something new and different, yet not turn into a purist. In fact, the meeting of these two technologies is far more exciting to me than having something that only exists on its own little island.

Did you read my article, The Cost of Quaint? More than 50 years after the invention of the touch-tone telephone, you can still find functional rotary phones out there. To think that WebRTC will overnight replace everything we know today with Web browsers and mobile devices is ludicrous. Wanting an SBC to be the front door for WebRTC traffic as well as that old-fashioned SIP stuff is just plain good business.

Purists need to understand a few things about how contact centers operate. They have call recorders that categorize and archive calls. They use workforce management software to score an agent's performance and optimize the customer experience. Contact center supervisors have applications that help them maximize their agents' productivity. They have reporting packages that create historical and real-time reports. Can you find similar tools for the pure WebRTC agent? Not yet.

A Pairing of Old and New
Let me close with a few thoughts. It's OK to be excited about WebRTC. I certainly am. Heck, I've written at least eight articles on the subject. It's also fine to feel somewhat protective of your baby. However, I want to say this to the purists: For WebRTC, it's just as important to be a team player as it is to be an advocate. If you want your creation to be as successful as you hope it will be, don't be afraid of letting it play with that nasty old telephone system. The benefits of having an old, boring telephone be the recipient of a WebRTC call are innumerable.

One more thing: After Dylan played that controversial electric set, he came back on stage with an acoustic guitar for a two-song encore, to much applause. And he's continued to feature his electric and folky sides ever since. And you know what? The world didn't end.

Readers, think about it and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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