WebRTC: Is this Finally the Year?

Almost five years have passed since Brent Kelly, of KelCor, and I hosted the first WebRTC conference-within-a-conference at Enterprise Connect. At the time, WebRTC was nearing the high arc of the hype curve as developers and vendors touted its ability to revolutionize and democratize communications.

By equipping Web browsers with the native ability to support voice and video calls and data sharing, WebRTC at the time offered the potential to enable click-to-call capability in virtually any application, without the need to require users to install and maintain plugins or dedicated apps to participate in communications sessions. By virtue of its support for peer-to-peer communications, WebRTC also created the potential for direct endpoint-to-endpoint calls without the need for expensive and complex backend telephony and video infrastructure.

However, battles over standards and codecs continually constrained WebRTC adoption, as did the lack of universal browser support. While browser owners largely agreed on embedded voice codecs, agreement wasn't so simple when it came to video. Google pushed its VP8 video encapsulation approach, while others tried to make H.264 the video codec of choice. Eventually, the IETF working groups agreed that WebRTC browsers should support H.264 and VP8, but by that time the newer H.265 and VP9 codecs were beginning to enter the market, and the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia), a group including Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, and others, began work on a new open-source next-generation video codec.

On the browser front, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera have long provided WebRTC support. But Microsoft didn't begin to embrace WebRTC until it released its Edge browser, and even then it created confusion with its support for Object Real-Time Communications, or ORTC, an alternative approach to WebRTC APIs. And Apple, with one of the largest browser footprints in the world, only recently, in Safari Version 11, embedded support for WebRTC libraries. Without native WebRTC support, users were left to install plugins for voice, video, and screen-sharing sessions within a browser.

As a result, it's fair to say that WebRTC hasn't lived up to the hype... or has it?

Certainly the vision we discussed at Enterprise Connect 2013 of WebRTC threatening the existence of the PSTN and UC platforms as we knew them at the time hasn't come to pass. No WebRTC-based services have thus far challenged the dominance in the consumer space of Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple FaceTime for voice and video calling, or have disrupted traditional UC vendors in the enterprise. WebRTC hasn't eliminated dedicated softphone apps, nor has it yet led to widespread click-to-call implementations enabling website

visitors to speak with companies without having to pick up the phone.

And yet, WebRTC is all around us.

Most Web and video conferencing, as well as UCaaS, providers now offer WebRTC-based access to meetings. Developers often use WebRTC libraries within dedicated desktop and mobile apps to enable voice, video, and data sharing support. A small number of companies, largely in the hospitality and financial services space, offer click-to-call options through their websites, coupling browser information with incoming calls to allow a customer service agent to recognize a customer quickly and determine the likely reason for a call before answering (e.g., a call coming in via an account management page will likely be a question about a bill).

In fact, Nemertes' 2017-18 study on contact center and customer engagement, published last September, found that 28% of participants were already supporting, or planning to support, voice chat through the Web and via mobile applications. In almost all these cases, developers are using WebRTC libraries in browsers or in mobile apps to enable easy, plugin-free communications capabilities.

With the quiet arrival of this new WebRTC reality, organizations need to ensure that they've optimized their management, security, and application development strategies to support a virtually unlimited means for employees, partners, and customers to connect to communication services. Fortunately, session border control vendors largely enable policy management for WebRTC connections. And app libraries from vendors like Callstats.io provide visibility into WebRTC session performance, including voice and video metrics, dropped calls, and connect rates.

Even with the now-widespread adoption of WebRTC, if under the covers, more opportunity remains for application developers to leverage it to add voice, video, and data-sharing capabilities to additional Web-based applications. More work remains to be done to ensure performance and security. And, standards bodies must fight old battles anew as AOMedia, Google, and others develop an approach to evolve video codecs beyond VP8 and H.264. Still, WebRTC may not have upended the UC world, but it certainly changed it -- and will continue to do so in the future.

Join me at Enterprise Connect 2018 on Monday, March 12, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. in Sun B for "WebRTC Reality Check: Is This the Year?" We'll be discussing the current state of WebRTC, opportunities and challenges, and where WebRTC goes from here in the years ahead.

Learn more about APIs & Embedded Communications at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Regular Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

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