WebRTC is for Losers
Before explaining why WebRTC is for losers, let me be clear that I am a big fan of WebRTC. It is likely the most significant development in enterprise communications this decade. WebRTC represents the evolution both of the Web and of the Web browser, and will facilitate real-time communications as a natural feature of the Internet.
WebRTC is many things, but it is not the disruptive technology that many of us expected or that it could have been. WebRTC is a disappointment, and we, the consumers of Web technologies, will never realize its true potential. WebRTC failed to deliver, and its champions and ultimately all Web users were short-changed. As good sports, we will focus on its successes. We will celebrate being losers.
Let's be clear what WebRTC is and what it is not. It is a baseline platform that has instigated a new wave of "client-less" communications solutions. It provides an architecture that frees developers from the chores associated with licensing codecs and distributing software clients. WebRTC solutions are emerging across the industry and were spotted throughout the exhibit hall at the recent Enterprise Connect conference. These are powerful, good things.
However, WebRTC failed to deliver on three key goals which promised a revolution. WebRTC is not ubiquitous, not plugin-free, and may not even be free. WebRTC has not delivered any new capabilities and remains a niche technology with no examples that have far-reaching implications.
Starting with ubiquity, WebRTC remains relegated to the minority. A key goal of WebRTC was to raise the standard of the default browser. With such widespread support, developers could build communications-capable applications with assumed end-user compatibility. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. Compatible versions of WebRTC are supported in Chrome and Firefox only, and remain the exception for browsers on mobile devices. There is no native support on Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Apple's Safari browser.
As a result, developers must assume that end-users are not WebRTC compliant, and there's no indication of that changing anytime soon. The best use for WebRTC applications today is for internal applications where more assumptions can be made about the remote user's desktop. These same environments can easily distribute applications or plugins, so the benefit is negligible.
A quick way around ubiquity is the browser plugin. This is exactly what WebRTC promised to eliminate. Plugins extend the capability of the browser, but also represent an inconvenience and security threat. Many organizations prevent plugins from being installed. Note that not even Google's own Hangouts, which uses the VP8 codec specified in WebRTC, is supported in Chrome without a plugin.
Further, in January Google began restricting certain types of plugins on Chrome. Several plugins including Microsoft SilverLight, Facebook Video, and its own Google Talk were excepted, to minimize disruption. Without a formal standard or decision on a mandatory video codec, the plugin-free vision of WebRTC falls short.
This brings us to free. WebRTC is free today, but its legality is not. Patent claims over the VP8 codec, which is included in Chrome today, are currently in dispute. Nokia believes VP8 violates its intellectual property and has filed multiple suits, including one against HTC which calls for injunctive relief. Nokia wants to stop VP8 and has no interest or obligation to license its technologies. It is up to the courts to determine Nokia's claim of infringement, but other firms are expected to challenge VP8 as well. The future of VP8 remains uncertain, and the intellectual property issues associated with the successor VP9 are even more complex.
Cisco offered an interesting solution to the free issue by making its license of H.264 available for free. The trade-off here is it must be downloaded from Cisco, which brings us back to plugins. Cisco demonstrated WebEx running on a Chromebox using H.264 at Enterprise Connect, but this required the WebEx extension to be downloaded from Cisco.
Again, WebRTC is an important development. However, it must be understood that WebRTC is not ubiquitous, plugin-free, or free. Since codecs and applications have enabled real-time, browser-based applications for years, WebRTC is just another approach. WebRTC has not delivered any features or capabilities that are inherently new.
WebRTC is an important technology. It provides a foundation or framework for future real-time applications. It doesn't directly support current telecom technologies such as G.711 or SIP, but it could provide a Web-friendly foundation for the future. Despite its severe limitations, it seems to be sparking innovation, which may ultimately prove to be its key value.
Dave Michels is Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.