Open Source

Redefining the Possible: WebRTC's Impact on App Development

By Jim Machi, VP of Product Management  |  June 10, 2013

You may have assumed that the battle for Internet browser market share was fought and won a decade ago. But with the growing interest in Web Real-Time Communications, or WebRTC, as an HTML5 value-added capability, the browser wars just may be back on. The good news for application developers and end users alike is that, as browser vendors line up behind Mozilla Firefox and Google (News - Alert) Chrome to enable their browsers with WebRTC, there will be an increasing economy of scale issuing developers a call to meet the demand behind a growing supply of innovative use cases.

The last browser war was driven by the concept of Web 2.0 around 2004. The term Web 2.0 began to rise in popularity when O'Reilly Media and MediaLive hosted the first Web 2.0 conference where it was defined as "The Web as Platform,” in which software applications are built upon the web as opposed to upon the desktop, aided by new interactive browser features. The unique aspect of this migration was the introduction of user-generated content in the form of ideas, text, videos or pictures, which could be harnessed to create higher value and application functionality. Clearly Web 2.0 spawned a web developer boom, which lead to many of the leading web services we use today, and added untold value to global economies. It’s possible that the same can be said about the coming developer and economic impact of WebRTC. The use cases and possibilities afforded by this open systems, browser-to-browser communication form can generate innovation and once again ignite competition in the browser feature business.

Redefining Web 3.0, with WebRTC

Nearly 10 years after the launch of Web 2.0, Web 3.0 has been defined, according to a special report by Lifeboat Research, as “a third generation of Internet-based services that collectively comprise what might be called ‘the intelligent Web’ — such as those using semantic web, micro-formats, natural language search, data-mining, machine learning, recommendation agents, and artificial intelligence technologies — which emphasize machine-facilitated understanding of information in order to provide a more productive and intuitive user experience.” Perhaps Web 3.0 could be further defined as the Internet phase when web app developers move to embrace real-time, multimedia communications by leveraging WebRTC.

Is the WebRTC capability in HTML5 a significant enough breakthrough for application and web developers to justify the declaration and redefinition of Web 3.0? Certainly, the hype cycle on the communications developer side of the issue could justify that declaration. But will the larger web and mobile app development community feel the same? Much of that depends on how quickly HTML5 developers embrace WebRTC.

WebRTC: Removing Barriers to Rich Communication Features

Compelling as WebRTC is as a means to simplify the use of rich communications across the web application space, there is no clear evidence that web developers are moving quickly to embrace it just yet. As Dean Bubley (News - Alert) reported in his recent in-depth report, WebRTC Market Status & Forecasts, “The problem is that at present, relatively few general Web developers are seriously thinking about embedding communications, and neither are many mobile app-developers. Some will have been put off by previous experiments with SIP, Flash, network APIs and other clunky approaches to embedding voice or video. Others will be concerned with fragmentation, uncertain iOS support, or the current ‘draft’ status of WebRTC.”

In addition, beyond WebRTC, there are limitless functionalities and features of HTML5 that developers can explore. Developers have a number of different ways to add value to their sites or apps besides building communications features into them. It is quite difficult for an e-commerce site to quantify and gauge the relative benefits of WebRTC when compared to 3G graphics or embedded payment systems, for example. With developers, WebRTC essentially has to compete for attention against all the other great plug-in features that developers could be doing, if they had enough time.

Yet it is expected that WebRTC as a technology will prove itself within the web development community over time as each browser vendor integrates the capability to meet or pull ahead of its competitors. And as WebRTC use cases in the traditional communications space continue to proliferate and services begin to penetrate the market, awareness and spillover in the web services space is inevitable.

WebRTC offers application developers the ability to create multimedia applications with interactive video and HD voice communication features using Javascript APIs, without the need for a proprietary client, codec or other cumbersome interoperability requirements. Already the breadth of application and service concepts and attachments for WebRTC in the communication developer world is quite extensive and growing rapidly, and that’s where the first wave of application development will be in the very near term. There are many examples of where WebRTC is considered applicable, and within each are multiple layers of nuanced use cases, from the practical, ROI-driven to the sublime.

Potential enterprise uses for WebRTC include unified communications and customer service, such as voice and video collaboration in the contact center, as well as the next generation of simplified conference and collaboration services. Vertical applications in education, health care, finance, and even emergency services are emerging, as are network APIs with WebRTC support for inclusion of voice and video chat in virtually any website. Social networking sites have the obvious advantage of massive user directories, which facilitate Skype (News - Alert)-less use cases for voice and video communications through WebRTC enabled browsers. Network operators view WebRTC as a vehicle to extend the reach of their on-net services with a new subscriber behind any browser-based, Internet-connected device. Pick a communications segment, a few smart industry folks, and you will undoubtedly discover a more efficient way to a solution or service by leveraging WebRTC.

Ultimately, WebRTC will prove to be a disruptor that will force the Internet browser, along with the developers supporting these browsers, to be more innovative in the design approach. WebRTC-focused startups are already popping up around the world. In a second wave of embrace by the web developer communities, rich communications could be integrated into web services apps by millions developers worldwide. And once there, we will undoubtedly see innovative use cases in the market that we can't even dream about now.

WebRTC: Driving Rich Media Sessions in the Network

As the communication developer community hits overdrive behind WebRTC-driven concepts and service models, developer interest in supporting technology is beginning to spike as well. Demand is growing for WebRTC enablers in the network such as interworking gateways and border elements, audio and video transcoders, and rich media mixing delivered by multimedia servers and IMS MRFs. Not only does WebRTC have the potential to redefine Web 3.0 for developers, it is clearly a driver for growth and an economic engine for these enabling technologies as well. WebRTC lowers the barriers to communicating via rich media sessions, which will place much greater demands on the elements in the network that can support the creative use of multimedia processes such as interactive video and HD audio and the requisite network interconnection and transport.  

In the end, WebRTC may or may not come to redefine Web 3.0, but it is very likely to have a broad impact on web services and application development. In the communications app development world, it has already stirred an intense level of excitement in terms of the limitless use cases, and as web developers join the party, the reignition of the browser wars may begin on an entirely new level. In any event, whether it comes to browser wars or just a major new wave of application development and economic growth, WebRTC means it’s game on.