WebRTC – What’s the Big Deal?

by David Lover | Arrow Systems Integration

A lot of people have been asking me about WebRTC. They say that they keep hearing about it but don’t really know what it’s all about. It’s been a very popular buzzword lately. And while there are definitely pro’s and con’s to this technology, and you’ll run into people with all kinds of opinions on it, it has the potential to be one of the most game changing things to hit our industry in a long time. Like all of these kinds of disruptive technologies, it is important that you are able join in the conversation. With all of that in mind, I thought might be a good time to talk it through.

As we all know, web-based, user interfaces have been replacing the installed, thick application for some time now. There are a lot of benefits to this. Easier app development, client interoperability, etc. It also brings back some of the benefits of the mainframe computer days. All the main processing of an application is done on a centralized web server. The web browser’s job is simply to render the content that it receives. There’s nothing to install on the user’s computer since the computer or mobile device usually already has a web browser installed. And even if the user doesn’t like the one pre-installed, most people don’t find it to too bothersome to download and install someone else’s. For the most part, HTML is HTML. The beauty is that this single installed application (the web browser) can be used as the client for TON’s of different applications.

The problem is that HTML (the language of the web) is not that robust in the ways of multimedia. In our world, this is why we still tend to have thick, installed applications for voice/video apps like Avaya One-X Communicator, Flare Experience, Radvision SCOPIA, and even Gotomeeting, Skype, Lync, and all the rest. But for the bigger picture of needing a more rich, multimedia experience with browser based web apps, this is why companies like Adobe introduced add-ons like Flash. These are plug-ins that are added to browsers to enhance their capabilities. When the browser is asked to render Flash content, it asks the plug-in to help. Technologies like Flash have gained huge popularity simply because of the richness that add to browser experience. It changed the experience and opened the door to more possibilities. As an example, since Flash is all about rich Multimedia, it also happens to be able to do voice and video. Avaya went so far as to create a Flash to SIP gateway called One-Touch Video, that allows the vast majority of browsers do voice and video calls into Aura. Consumer to Enterprise voice/video seamlessness? Heck yeah. Very cool product.

Sadly, Flash is a licensed, proprietary add-on that is not natively part of the browser. And it isn’t 100% adopted. I carefully said “almost everyone” has it installed. In fact, some browser manufactures, like Apple, have refused to provide support in some of their browsers (like iphones and ipads). What we need is a new web standard that both web developers, servers, and browsers will adopt. That part has arrived. It’s called HTML 5. While that alone doesn’t cut it, it does provide the foundation to build on. This is where WebRTC comes in. WebRTC is an open project with people working feverously to define a standard that will be embedded in the browser itself. WebRTC is, as you can probably figure out based on its name, Web based, Real Time Communications. WebRTC is not meant to be everything that Flash is. It’s about voice, video, and data communications.

WebRTC focuses on three major tasks. The first is acquiring audio and video. This can be thought of as simply gaining access to your PC’s video camera and microphone. Not as easy of a task as you might think. You need seamless access to the OS’s device drivers, you need to handle security and permissions, etc. The second task is to communicate that audio and video in a very synchronized way. Again, not as easy as you think. HTML is usually just about content “gets”. Supporting standard voice/video communication codecs was never part of a browser’s responsibility. And as we know from our enterprise world, Firewalls, NAT traversal through firewalls, and network security in general just don’t make that easy. The third major task is to communicate arbitrary data. While this could be used just to support the Voice/Video communications itself, it also offers some great peer to peer data sharing capabilities. These three things could make it possible for software vendors to start offering web-based softphones that are much more interoperable. It also makes it possible to truly have end-to-end VoIP communications between consumers and enterprise a reality. Without this, you will always need a PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) to communicate between the two. With WebRTC (or something like it), TRUE Cloud based communications could actually work.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, because it kind of is. So far, WebRTC is little more than a science project. But it’s a very cool science project with some huge backers, such as Google, behind it. But there are definitely some missing players. Right now, only three browsers support webRTC (ie Chrome, Firefox, and recently Opera). Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari are missing from this group. We were hoping that Microsoft would surprise us with an announcement of WebRTC support at their World Wide Partner Conference. Didn’t happen. They both seem to be saying that they’ll look closer at it once it gets closer to being a standard. But WebRTC may just be big enough that Microsoft and Apple may just have to fall in line. In fact, there are a lot of IT professionals that don’t think Microsoft/Apple are needed for this to take off. We may just see these browsers end up with some third party developing a plug-in for support, although this would somewhat be missing the point of why WebRTC is cool. The other issue is that the existing browser vendors can’t agree on all of the codecs that should be included in the standard. Currently, there isn’t universal support for G.729 (for voice) or (H.264 for video). Those are both huge if WebRTC is hoping to gain universal interoperability with the enterprise.

So, in a nutshell, WebRTC looks to be one of those game changing technologies for the communications space. It lets Real Time Communications join in the open, true “cloud” philosophy space that more traditional not-so-real-time apps have been able to play in. So far, for Enterprise Communications, Cloud is really more of a consumption model than anything else. Cloud is meant to be more than that. WebRTC helps move this in that direction. It still has a way to go, but this is certainly something to pay attention to. Arrow SI certainly is. Our application developers are already in deep. Patient Connect is being expanded to be more of a service that lets patients find doctors, and lets them talk to the clinic via voice/video, all using WebRTC. That’s going to be called ServiceConnect. This isn’t just medical. It could be used for anyone wanting to connect customers to offered services. We’re also looking to use it to create plug-ins and integration connectors to between our major partners Avaya, Genband, and Microsoft. There’s some great information on WebRTC out on the google tubes if you want more. Just Google “WebRTC” or “WebRTC what’s the big deal”. You’ll find some great articles and opinions.

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The thoughts and opinions in these blogs belong to the individual blogger and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Arrow Systems Integration.