WebRTC: The Next Game Changer in Communications

Cover Story

WebRTC: The Next Game Changer in Communications

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  December 11, 2012

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

Communications is poised to get a whole lot more interesting in the next few months as a new technology called WebRTC comes to bear. It’s unlikely that most people will know what it is that is enabling this sea change in communications, but many important companies believe WebRTC will be transformative. That’s because it will allow for real-time voice and video interactions from a web browser, and without requiring special client software.

“Imagine when communications become like the web,” says Phil Edholm of PKE Consulting LLC and UCStrategies.com, who headed up last month’s WebRTC Expo in San Francisco.

When that happens, things get particularly interesting for web entities like Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Google (one of the pioneers of WebRTC) that want to enable new communications options for existing online communications, he says. Edholm offers for consideration one possible scenario on this front: “So if you use Pinterest, for example, and tag something you like and there are five other Pinterest tags on that item, what can happen with WebRTC is it can allow the server to trigger real-time communications between those individuals. To do that in a server takes about 40 lines of Java script, which is really easy to write.”

Of course, this is just one example, as the potential applications for WebRTC are limitless. WebRTC also could allow one person or organization to send a URL linking to an RTC server to another individual as a means to allow for real-time communications direct from one person or entity to another. There is also great opportunity for using WebRTC to enable communications in various business applications.

All of that probably sounds great if you’re a web entity or an end user, but it might be a bit less appealing if you’re a communications service provider. That’s because WebRTC can take the middle man (read: telco or VoIP provider) out of real-time communications. Indeed, many of the sources INTERNET TELEPHONY interviewed for this story indicated that WebRTC could be a Skype killer.

“WebRTC is a technology that lets developers build real-time communication into web pages,” writes Tsahi Levent-Levi, direct of business solutions at Amdocs and BlogGeek.me blogger, in a Sept. 10 posting. “While it’s going to affect the telcos, it’s actually the VoIP vendors who now face the real danger, because it brings down the VoIP players’ protective subscription walls.”

Yet, interestingly, Skype and its new owner, Microsoft (News - Alert), have been among the key participants in work around WebRTC.

Matthew Kaufman, principal architect for Microsoft-Skype, tells INTERNET TELEPHONY that WebRTC provides yet another platform through which the company can deliver its services.

“Skype is available in mobile devices, tablets, desktop machines and every operating system,” Kaufman says. “Cross-platform interoperability is very important to Skype as we want all of our customers to be able to access and use Skype across platforms. As our customers are in situations where they only have the browser to rely on for communications, we want to enable them to use Skype in that situation. WebRTC enables this real-time communications in the browser without a plug-in. Skype is currently available in the browser through Facebook video calling using a plug-in.”

The WebRTC standard, on which work is still being done, consists of a combination of APIs and a protocol. The protocol part, an effort out of the Internet Engineering Task Force, comes into play to enable one person’s web browser to communicate with the web browser of another individual. The APIs, which allow a server to tell the browser what to do – like send or receive an audio or video media stream, are the fruits of the W3C’s labors.

“Microsoft is involved with the standardization of WebRTC,” Kaufman explains. “On Aug. 6, Microsoft contributed the CU-RTC-Web proposal to the W3C WebRTC working group. This proposal adds a real-time, peer-to-peer transport layer that empowers web developers by having greater flexibility and transparency, putting developers directly in control over the experience they provide to their users. This proposal dispenses with the constraints imposed by unnecessary state machines and complex SDP and provides simple, transparent objects.”

He adds that the proposal “elegantly builds on and integrates with the existing W3C getUserMedia API, making it possible for an application to connect a microphone or a camera in one browser to the speaker or screen of another browser. getUserMedia is an increasingly popular API that Microsoft has been prototyping and that is applicable to a broad set of applications with an HTML5 client, including video authoring and voice commands.”

Joe Burton, CTO of Plantronics (News - Alert) and a keynote speaker at last month’s WebRTC Expo, tells INTERNET TELEPHONY that Microsoft and Skype have a different view on the API than do others involved in WebRTC.

In addition to Microsoft, companies that have been early participants in work around WebRTC include Cisco (News - Alert), Google, and Mozilla, as well as smaller entities. Some traditional telcos are getting in on the act as well; Edholm says that German telco DT this fall did a WebRTC presentation at an event in Paris.

Google – which in 2010 bought Global IP Sound, or GIPS, and then outsourced the technology that it got via the deal – has implemented a key component of WebRTC in a beta version of Chrome that’s out now. According to Google’s Oct. 2 Chromium Blog: “Chrome now includes the PeerConnection API, which allows developers to create web apps with real-time audio and video calling without the need for a plug-in. Together, PeerConnection and thegetUserMedia API represent the next steps in WebRTC, a new standard which aims to allow high quality video, audio, and data communications on the web. “

WebRTC is expected to be included in Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers by the end of the first quarter of 2013. Ericsson (News - Alert) is reportedly working on a WebRTC-enabled browser for iOS and Android-based mobile devices. And conventional wisdom is that other popular browsers will also include WebRTC in the not-too-distant future, likely by 2014.

“As we build basic voice and video capabilities into every web browser, it lowers the amount of investment required to create a communications application,” says Burton of Plantronics, which sells audio devices like headsets and speaker phones, and some software applications, that can help enable the high-quality real-time communication experiences that WebRTC is expected to deliver.

He explains that will make it possible to build very specialized applications involving real-time communications. For example, he says, a bank or health care outfit (or a development company working for this type of organization) could easily create applications especially to serve its customers.

“[WebRTC] will trigger whole next wave of communications innovation,” he adds.

Sajeel Hussain, vice president of product management and marketing for WebRTC Expo sponsor Thrupoint, says his company over the last year has been developing a SIP-WebRTC gateway, RTP proxy, and WebRTC-based application mash ups of web-based applications.

“The SWIS extends WebRTC to SIP environments across UC vendors,” Hussain explains. “The RTP proxy converts between WebRTC RTP streams and RTP flows of SIP entities. When coupled with our Thrupoint Service Broker (session management) technology, we are able to address a number of use cases around SIP and WebRTC interoperability.”

Thrupoint has been working with customers, including several Fortune 100 firms (primarily in the financial services vertical), on a few uses cases involving WebRTC. One use case, for private banking, would give high-net-worth clients a unified UC experience on tablet devices with rich communication capabilities.

“Clients can see presence status of financial advisors and initiate IM chat, voice call, full screen H.264 video call or n-way conference,” says Hussain. “File sharing, non-persistent data streaming and visual voicemail are also rendered through this single interface. Voice and video are provided by Thrupoint’s SWIS and RTP proxy, and the tablet application leverages existing enterprise services for IM, presence, conferencing, etc. [This is] also relevant for [the] health care sector to do with physician-patient interactions.”

Other use cases on which Thrupoint and clients have been focused include a virtual support portal, and using federation of WebRTC with existing video and contact center infrastructure to provide collaborative retail customer experiences involving video kiosks, mobile banking, and virtual tellers.

Given that worldwide spending on communications by IT departments top $2 trillion worldwide annually, according to Gartner (News - Alert), any technology that allows for an easier way to build such services is worthy of notice, says Burton. However, he adds, there’s also great value in doing what Skype already has done – delivered a solution that works great, regardless of your type of Internet connection, and built a community around that.

Shubh Agarwal, vice president of marketing for OpenClove, a WebRTC proponent that is providing an open, cloud-based platform for anyone (consumer or enterprise service provider) to embed communication, offers this perspective: “Skype is a success story in transforming communications – the third or fourth generation (switching, digital, IP, OTT VoIP). But it is not capable of this next trend – of embedded or context-based communications.

“Proof point – the idea did exist when eBay bought Skype, but it failed, due the very nature of Skype as a closed communication system – making money the old-fashioned way – selling cheap long distance,” says Agarwal. “Word on the street is that Microsoft is attempting to do the same – but it is anyone’s guess if and when it will happen.”

Alan Johnston, an Avaya distinguished engineer and SIP Forum director, says that prior to WebRTC, if you wanted to offer real-time communications you needed to license a signaling stack, license a media stack, and integrate those into various applications or plug-ins to run on various platforms. In addition, you needed technology to address security considerations like encryption and firewalls, adds Johnston, the author of a WebRTC book. Armed with its GIPS and SILK technology, Skype used to be the only one able to do that, Johnston explains. But now, he says, WebRTC provides all of that functionality for free and with the promise of cross-platform capability.

 “WebRTC is really going to make changes in our industry,” Johnston says, “and it’s going to happen in Internet time instead of telephony time.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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