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WebRTC at Enterprise Connect Orlando 2014

Two years into the WebRTC phenomenon, what does it really mean to the enterprise? Our second Enterprise Connect WebRTC Conference within a Conference tried to answer this question yesterday, or at least tried to offer some perspectives on it. And in our closing session of this daylong program, the panel debated whether the real transformation has to do with the technology itself, or the larger issue of how communications itself is evolving.

Nobody really questions that communications is morphing into new features and functions in a larger environment, whether that environment is the Web, or enterprise-dedicated systems. The promise of WebRTC is that it could potentially drive communications functions onto the Web in some fundamentally disruptive ways.

In this final session of the WebRTC day at Enterprise Connect Orlando 2014, Phil Edholm of PKE Consulting, a leading WebRTC proponent, argued that the specific technology choice of WebRTC will matter, though, "This is not about technology per se. It's about a transformation in how we do communications."

But Edholm clearly believes that this transformation will be driven by the standard known as WebRTC. He likened today's WebRTC to the Web browsers of the 1990s. How many of you use a Netscape browser today? he asked the audience. And yet, even though those first-generation browsers no longer exist, no one would argue that browsers in general, and Web standards in particular, have not been transformative.

Edholm's position is that WebRTC represents the latest wave in this Web evolution. We can no more describe precisely what WebRTC will evolve into, than we could have painted, in 1995, a picture of how the Netscape revolution would eventually lead to Amazon, eBay, Google, and online banking, Phil argued.

So who's going to make money off of WebRTC? Lawrence Byrd, technology evangelist at Altocloud and another WebRTC advocate, argued that, much as in previous Web generations, we can't know today what will evolve; the capabilities of today's Web have enabled businesses like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Amazon, so a communications-enabled Web will likewise enable new businesses we can't imagine at the dawn of the WebRTC era, Lawrence suggested.

But what does all this really mean for the enterprise, which likely has more pressing immediate concerns than what's happening with multimedia-enabled Web standards? My own favorite comments actually came in the opening WebRTC session of the day. In discussing the topic, Cullen Jennings of Cisco--one of the leaders of the WebRTC standards effort--said that, while you may not have a business case for WebRTC today, "someone in your company should be playing with this."

Cullen even asserted that, "This is the biggest change that's happening on the Internet today." Given that he's a longtime veteran of Web standards efforts, Cullen's perspective is not to be taken lightly. In fact, I think he's probably right. There are companies making more money off of current-generation Internet over-the-top (OTT) businesses and technologies, but the impact of making every Web browser a communications client is really, potentially a big deal.

It seems to me that, ultimately, the question is whether WebRTC is important because it integrates real-time communications into a client that had not been predominantly a real-time client--that would be signficant, though not unique. As panel members pointed out, Flash has been doing this for years.

The real transformation will come with ubiquity. The fact that WebRTC doesn't require a plugin means that everybody will just have this capability in their browser from Day One. But that will only be the case if all browsers support WebRTC, not the current two of four major browsers (Firefox and Chrome yes; IE and Safari, no).

As Phil Edholm said in our closing session, we tend to overestimate the short-term impact of technology changes, and underestimate the long-term impact. So WebRTC maybe won't disrupt your enterprise today or even this year. But it's hard to imagine WebRTC going away or faltering either. We can't predict what it will become, but it's definitely something to devote some professional curiosity to, at a minimum.

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