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WebRTC: Is it the Panacea for the Video Conferencing Industry?

I'm all for instant gratification and taking WebRTC at face value if it offers just that! WebRTC is all about "right now" and allows anyone to reach anyone by video without downloads or plug-ins. It also promises to enable anyone with a computer to join video conferences that are being held on traditional equipment. So you'd think that with WebRTC's potential to spread video calling and conferencing out beyond the confines of current systems, the video conferencing industry would be enthralled and proclaiming it as the best thing since sliced bread.

Yet, sliced bread it isn't, since for the industry it presents more problems than it solves. Let's look at some of these in a small amount of detail:

1. Ubiquity
Despite all the hype around WebRTC, it pays to remember that it is still emerging and not yet completely baked. Which begs the question, "Will it provide all that is needed to ensure its universal adoption?", particularly as today it is only released for Google Chrome, and it is in beta for Firefox. Microsoft is backing a competing standard called CU-RTCWeb, and Apple has no stated position, nor has it announced any plans for adopting WebRTC.

By current browser market share, this means that 40% of end users' browsers may never support WebRTC--making it entirely possible that we will all continue to struggle with connectivity, and still be required to install different things based upon our chosen browser. Consequently, the promise of ubiquity falls flat on its face and WebRTC ends up making no difference to a very large minority of users.

2. Quality
There is a question mark over the quality of video when it comes to WebRTC. Given the technology involved, there is no way that it can deliver a comparable experience to that provided by video conferencing devices or software, most of which offer high-definition, screen sharing, multi-party meetings and packet-loss resiliency. This is because the video conferencing industry and its developers have complete control over their technology versus WebRTC, which will always remain at the mercy of a web browser and its native capabilities.

3. Interoperability
WebRTC also throws up other challenges around interoperability. Rather than paying into the patent license pool for H.264, Google (one of the major backers of WebRTC) has pushed the use of VP9 for video and Opus for audio. These are far from mainstream codecs and not currently used by the video conferencing industry.

Given the technology inside the majority of video conferencing devices, it is likely that many systems will never be able to natively support these "exotic" codecs; even if their manufacturers decided to go to the effort of providing upgrades for them. This means that without new infrastructure--e.g. WebRTC gateways--interoperability with current standards-based H.323/SIP systems will not be possible. Rather than looking at a ubiquitous video calling environment, we end up with yet another island that sits alongside Skype and Google Hangouts. This means for WebRTC to succeed, it will require businesses to buy more infrastructure to bridge their traditional video installations with the world of WebRTC--yet another barrier in the way for WebRTC success.

4. Support
Another area that could easily be overlooked is support. When video doesn't work, when there are connection issues between devices, or even when the browser used is different from what is expected--who are you going to call? Don't bother with 1-800-GOOGLE.

5. Availability
I believe that every call is better if it's a video call, and it's not just group meetings that benefit from video--all personal contact is richer, deeper and more telling over video than any other medium. In order to be able to make ad hoc video calls, then, a real, always-on, always available endpoint is necessary. This could be a hardware or software system, but I do not believe it can be a browser page that only runs when you click on the link.

Given all these issues, where do I believe WebRTC fits? If it does manage to overcome the major issue of enough browser support, then I believe it does have its place. For me, the true role of WebRTC in today's video conferencing environment is to allow those with systems to meet those without business-grade video conferencing systems. This includes allowing a "click to call" button on a webpage that connects consumers to vendors and any combination in between.

It may not be the panacea we hoped for, yet despite all of the obvious challenges, many vendors in the industry can already preview some level of WebRTC integration. However, it's the video managed service provider that is in the best position to take WebRTC forward. This is because WebRTC functionality should be a relatively easy addition their network core, thereby allowing the cloud service to deliver a "gateway" for interoperability between standards-based equipment (H.323/SIP) and WebRTC. And if the service provider has very tight integration between service provision and on-site equipment, then every device or software supported automatically becomes WebRTC-enabled.

William McDonald is CTO of StarLeaf.