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WebRTC + VoIP: 2 Great Tastes...

In my last article I made the plea for, "a little more Web and a little less VoIP." In today's article, I'd like to clarify this statement by saying there are important ways in which the Web and VoIP worlds play quite nicely together.


Image Credit: Cassidy

There are times to focus on innovation and times to focus on interoperability. These are two distinct forces, and each one warrants a different approach. Ignoring the context and nuance of a situation is like holding a hammer and treating everything like a nail. You are going to end up with a hot broken mess.

Innovation is stifled when new technology is encumbered by unnecessary ties to legacy systems. In particular, forcing Web devs to learn telecoms in order to use WebRTC is a losing formula. At the same time, providing interoperability smooths the transition for incumbent players in the communications space. This makes the Web + VoIP a powerhouse team.

Let's take a look at innovation first. New technology is exciting because it changes our lives. Literally, our habits, relationships, and the ways we do business are being morphed and augmented by new emerging technologies. This is the exciting promise that WebRTC holds: new communications experiences that change how business is done.

Today, communications are narrow and one-dimensional. When I send a text message or phone call, especially to a business, it is usually devoid of context. For example, I recently bought some t-shirts from CustomInk, who have just about the best customer service I have experienced. Its website is easy to use and full of information. I was able to design a shirt and get through 95% of the process with no need for external help. But then I ran into a problem.

I wanted expedited shipping, and this required that I place my order over the phone. I had to leave the context of the Web in order to dial digits on my phone. The agent who picked up was remarkably friendly and helpful, but as a consumer I was still annoyed. No matter how friendly your staff is, when I am forced to re-explain everything I've just done over the last 1/2 hour on your website, it's going to be a bad time.


What if, instead of a pop up with a PSTN number, the button for expedited shipping simply connected a Web-based, peer-to-peer call? Because it's all on the Web, the agent would have full access to the journey I'd been on, and could help me immediately. This type of rich, multi-dimensional interaction is where communications is headed.

We are still a long way off from seeing ubiquitous adoption of rich communications. All technological revolutions must go through periods of transition. This is where the intersection between VoIP and the Web can make a real impact today. Technologies like Asterisk function as a gateway between the two disparate systems, bridging the gap. This means that a business with investments in telecommunications infrastructure can quickly begin to take advantage of web technologies via a gateway. It's like a marriage of chocolate and peanut butter.

What are the downfalls to this approach?
The same as they have always been when employing any type of gateway. When you gateway between two systems you lose fidelity. By necessity, you must condense the interaction into a set of lowest common denominators. In doing so, you lose all of the unique advantages of the individual components that you are gatewaying between. In the case of Web communications, you lose flexibility. "Native" Web implementations can transition seamlessly between chat, voice, video, and data-sharing in the same session. This is far more complex (if not impossible) to manage when using a Web-to-VoIP gateway.

In the end, keeping a separation of concerns makes for a smart path forward. For the purpose of pushing adoption of Web technologies, evangelists should focus on the Web community. Native implementations will drive technological innovation. For the purpose of evangelizing existing businesses with VoIP infrastructure already in place, using gateway technologies is a terrific immediate solution.

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