WebRTC is an open-source standard (spearheaded by Google in 2012 through the World Wide Web Consortium) enabling browsers to make voice or video calls without needing any plug-ins. Using WebRTC, a user can establish a voice or video call by clicking on a button in a browser representing the other endpoint.
This other end could be a person, a conferencing platform, a customer support service, a video source, etc. This capability clearly has massive potential for altering how consumers communicate online – not just between themselves but also with companies that provide everyday services.
At the time that WebRTC was launched, it was heralded as ‘disruptive.’ Some even claimed it marked the end of the traditional telephone network (aka “the PSTN” which stands for Public Switched Telephone Network, providing the infrastructure and services for public voice telecommunication). In the two years since, the adoption of WebRTC has been fairly limited, as the technology experienced the growing pains that many new technologies endure. First, there was a major conflict over which video codec would be mandatory. Google was pushing for a recent royalty-free codec (VP8), while existing video vendors like Cisco fought for an entirely different one (H.264) that was already compatible with most of the existing IP communications services and systems like Microsoft Lync and Cisco’s conferencing platforms. The entire project became fuzzy when both Microsoft and Apple refused to support the emerging standard in their respective browsers, bringing the market share of supported browsers below critical mass. These conflicts of interest have resulted in a slow adoption curve, with many waiting to see if they will be resolved in the near future.
Will 2015 be the year when Google and Microsoft join forces?
The end of 2014 seemed to signal a breakthrough in closing both of these issues. First, in an IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) meeting in November, attendees agreed to advance a proposal for approval that would make both video codecs mandatory for all browsers. Although neither Microsoft nor Google have formally committed to supporting the opposing codec, it appears as if resolution is possible.
Second, an evolution to WebRTC, named ORTC (Object API for RTC), was developed to provide more flexibility and interoperation capability with existing communications systems and services. In recent months, it has been generally well-received in the standards body as a “next-generation” of sorts to the current WebRTC 1.0 standard. Both Google and Microsoft have taken steps to resolve their differences and potentially work together in the effort to achieve widespread adoption of WebRTC. As it stands today, Chrome, Internet Explorer and Firefox will support ORTC, which is above critical mass in my opinion. However, I can’t predict if or when Apple will (have to) embrace the technology as well.
Will 2015 be the year that WebRTC revolutionizes telecommunications?
Despite these recent efforts, WebRTC will not replace the PSTN in 2015, nor will web-based communications replace phone number-based dialing and systems (if you’re curious, a more in-depth argument can be found here). However, provided that Microsoft and Google deliver on the intentions reflected above, I believe we will see major WebRTC adoption in both the telecom augmentation space and the web app space in 2015.
In the augmentation of existing telecom solutions, a few are getting significant traction:
Live voice and video chat for customer support. Using WebRTC to integrate a company’s website traffic into agent-based contact center interactions is an obvious business case. Services like Amazon’s Mayday and AMEX’s Live Video Chat have proven that WebRTC technology improves the interaction between web application users and the contact center. While this can be done through a complete new application like the Mayday Button, adding a “click-to-call” button to a website can be done with just a couple of lines of code. Using WebRTC for customer support has other benefits. For example, at the start of a call, the support agent will know who you are and what page you are on, a tremendous efficiency gain that both consumers and enterprises will undoubtedly appreciate.
“Click-to-join” a conference. Another key area is using WebRTC to join virtual conference calls. Until today, video is primarily reserved for high-end conference rooms and for voice access to a conference – most attendees join with a phone number. Simple “click to join” audio integration with WebRTC can provide significant advantages, both in voice quality through HD and spatial audio, as well as reduced costs for conferencing service providers and for users. Not to mention avoiding the common conference call blunders highlighted in the YouTube video that went viral last year.
Globalizing the reach of communication services. Finally, WebRTC is opening the door for telecommunication service providers to extend offers to consumers and businesses with devices that are not connected to their own phone networks, or when users are using another network. For example, WebRTC would allow your wireless carrier to extend a communications service (e.g., video, voice, SMS, etc.) to any device on any network in the world without the need for a dedicated app that must be compatible with the majority of smartphones. T-Mobile’s recently announced WiFi calling feature does not use WebRTC, but it is an early indicator of the value of this type of service. The same value of T-Mobile’s new service can be achieved with WebRTC, but in a more technologically simple way. This value was confirmed at CES this year, where AT&T was announced to be the first U.S. carrier to support WebRTC.
Beyond traditional telecom, several new applications are emerging that use real-time interactions as part of a web application, or even totally new business models. For example, a number of micro consulting/services sites have emerged (e.g., PopExpert), that bring together experts (in the case of PopExpert, life coaches) with their consumers into face-to-face online consultations. Another example is social using WebRTC to enable voice or video interaction, such as NTT’s SkyTalk. Many new WebRTC implementations are being developed and will come to the market in 2015.
Is 2015 the year where WebRTC really takes off?
While some WebRTC-based services will continue to be free over the coming year, many vendors and organizations will pursue paid subscription models, such as conferencing providers or online expert consultation providers. Once Microsoft and Google have made WebRTC more ubiquitously available, the next challenge will be to add quality to Internet calling (after all, WebRTC calls are routed over the public Internet, which we know is not always reliable) – keeping in mind that when consumers and businesses have to pay for a service, they expect quality.
The coming year will serve as WebRTC’s transition from a novelty and a basis for free communications, to the basis for offering business-related or subscription-based solutions to consumers. The result will be that these WebRTC providers will be expected to deliver a quality experience that equals or exceeds the experience of the telephone network consumers are used to. While the convenience of WebRTC or the availability of HD audio and video may be a draw, drop-outs, echoes, or other user experience issues will limit its use and value. Solutions exist that minimize the impacts of traffic congestion common to the open Internet, which you can read more about in this blog post. The combination of assured quality, and WebRTC support for both codecs and all major browsers (except Safari), may just make 2015 the year that WebRTC really takes off. But as you can see, we’ve got a lot of work to do before we get there.
TechCrunch recently asked us for our insights on the topic. If you haven’t read the article yet, check it out here.
Itay holds a master's degree in electronics engineering from the Université Libre in Brussels and an MBA from INSEAD.