WebRTC is a proposed technology standard poised to change the world. It will potentially disrupt voice, video, and mobile communications, and dramatically affect how we interact with the web. That's because WebRTC will make real-time communications a standard capability within the web browser.
Today, browser-based voice and video communications requires specialized software, often called "plugins." In most cases, plugins are a minor inconvenience, though many large enterprises restrict their installation. Plugins provide the browser with the necessary tools for real-time communications -- including the codec, the engine that converts voice and video into digital information.
One of the goals of WebRTC is to make these tools standard in all major browsers. WebRTC could also invigorate innovation by moving communications from the domain of patent-controlled technologies to open and free technologies. The most powerful aspect of WebRTC is that it will raise users' expectation of what browsers can do. For example, websites could offer a click-for-help function that initiates an online voice or video call.
It is important to note that WebRTC doesn't actually offer any new functionality over what's possible today. Services such as Google Talk and Hangouts, Skype, and Facebook's FaceTime offer real-time communications via browser plugins or complete standalone software clients. The true power of WebRTC exists in this capability as a default function.
Such widespread deployment requires broad support among the major browsers: Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. Unfortunately, the browser makers Google, Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft don't agree on a lot of things. That's probably why Google, the initial sponsor of WebRTC, brought it to the standards groups. Google donated a considerable amount of the proposed technology.
WebRTC support and awareness has been steadily increasing, and many believe it will instigate a revolution in communications. Open-source, royalty-free code, and the ability to integrate communications into the web could potentially change how organizations and consumers interact, particularly with each other. For organizations, WebRTC bridges the gap between websites and toll-free numbers.
WebRTC standards stalemate
But it hasn't happened yet. WebRTC has been stuck in the standards process, caught between incumbents and revolutionaries. There are several issues, but the biggest is the mandatory video codec. The conflict lies between Google's initial suggestion -- a now free video codec -- and the licensed codec that powers the Internet today. Both sides have merit, so and no compromise can be found.
Eventually the codec issue will be resolved, so many enterprises are adopting a wait-and-see approach. But the delays have not hindered WebRTC enthusiasts. Chrome is the most popular browser today, and it currently supports Google's definition of WebRTC, as does Mozilla's Firefox. As a result, every WebRTC application today works in these browsers, and the number of applications is increasing. There are now some 300 WebRTC vendors, with many more projects still in the labs.
However, there is no reason to wait for WebRTC.
Improved customer experience is cited as a key benefit of WebRTC, but that doesn't mean it is necessary for companies to make vast improvements to customer service. For starters, they can make better use of the telephone. Sometimes the repeated "your call is important to us" just doesn't ring true.
For years, Amazon has offered a click-to-be-called capability that allows customers to enter their phone number and be called by an Amazon agent -- no plugin required. Other options include plugins and separate applications. These solutions are not about technologies, but procedures, training, and policies.
Another commonly cited WebRTC benefit is contextual support. For example, if a prospective customer is confused about a product's features on the website, a quick WebRTC session could connect them with a specialized agent, possibly even with a shared screen or other session content. It sounds great, but isn't a new capability. The reason this isn't common practice today is because modern contact centers are efficiently designed with large groups of generalist agents. Improving service through context isn't a mystery; it's just expensive.
Don't delay real time
The hype around WebRTC consistently conveys a set of values about business communications and the way things should be. But waiting for WebRTC to mature becomes an excuse for inaction. Many of WebRTC's functions -- or their results -- can be effected today, and those who leverage these capabilities now will be in a better place to take advantage of WebRTC when the time is right.
Waiting for WebRTC may not be a trivial wait, either. First comes agreement, then comes ratification, then the vendors determine if and when it should be supported, and then will come the browser updates. Considering there are still a lot of systems running Windows XP out there, it might be a while. If web-based real-time communications are deemed a priority, then waiting is plain wrong.
Lastly, and this one is difficult, the standard may not really even matter. The last ubiquitous video solution in the browser was Adobe's Flash, which was never a formal standard. Flash didn't make it through the mobile revolution, but my point is that many good ideas become commonly supported without standards. While the IETF sits in a standards stalemate, a revolution can be occurring.
There is nothing about WebRTC not to like. It represents the next big and natural evolution of the browser, and the browser is increasingly the most important application on the computer. The excitement and euphoria over it may be misplaced, however, because solutions for real-time communications over the web exist today. The technology is the easy part.
Dave Michels is a principal analyst at TalkingPointz and a well-known consultant, writer, and speaker on unified communications.