Businesses need to explore Firefox, Chrome's WebRTC to bolster services and cut costs

Experts at Enterprise Connect show say the browser-based voice, video, data technology will expand features of business apps

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Businesses need to study up now on WebRTC - the browser-based voice and video support included in the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome but that seems destined for all browsers - if they want to jump on opportunities to enhance services and cut costs, according to experts at the Enterprise Connect conference.

The application for which WebRTC offers the most potential is contact centers, where customers seeking help on Web sites can connect with live help via voice and video but also share screens.

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For example, in a private demo room at the conference Avaya showed the technology working in conjunction with its Contact Center platform, something that is not a product yet but that may become part of a future offering. With no other client than a WebRTC-enabled Chrome browser a client PC clicked on a Web page button to initiate a video connection with an agent machine through the Contact Center server.

The broader potential is that through WebRTC's API developers can readily incorporate video-chat in applications without worrying about compatibility of codecs because the codecs are built into the browsers. WebRTC has the intelligence to determine the type of traffic it is passing and select the codec that will optimize it given the network performance.

"This will move voice and video from being applications; [they become] more of a feature," says Jan Liden, a senior product manager at Google who is working on the WebRTC standard.

Over the next year businesses will see applications enabled with WebRTC, and they should explore how the technology might be useful to them. "Think out-of-the-box about real-time data and video to improve business processes," says Cullen Jennings, a Cisco Distinguished Engineer also working on the standard. "Think about how it works over existing networks. Slap vendors around to get them to build what you need."

Expect applications written by third-party developers that incorporate WebRTC to proliferate over the next three to six months, says Valentine Matula, senior director of Avaya's multimedia technologies research. Mainstream application developers will follow quickly, he says.

IT executives should sit down with their own application developers over the next year to see what's possible, says Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research.

With communications built into browsers and apps businesses have the chance to cut voice call, audio conferencing and videoconferencing costs by reducing service fees such as 800 calls to service centers.

So far Apple and Microsoft haven't incorporated WebRTC in Internet Explorer or Safari. Microsoft's Derek Burney, a corporate vice president presenting a keynote at Enterprise Connect, says doing so is part of the company's game plan when a standard has been finalized.

Microsoft's Skype also provides voice, video and data over the Internet, but requires a separate client that is proprietary, resulting in an island of connectivity among Skype users. WebRTC has the potential to federate this type of communication or to enable each user to connect to multiple islands that are useful to them.

A goal of WebRTC is to enable voice, video and file sharing between browsers without plug-ins, but in the short-term they may become necessary. Near ubiquity is a requirement of maximizing the usefulness of WebRTC, but if Internet Explorer doesn't support it that creates a serious problem. By most estimates IE is at least a strong second among browsers.

As a result, plug-ins may arise that serve the purpose until Microsoft bakes WebRTC into its browser, experts say.

Mobile browsers that support WebRTC are also in the works. Linden says Google focused first on WebRTC in desktop Chrome browsers and that putting it in its mobile browser is "the obvious next step. Mobile is harder."

The technology today is best-effort, but there are provisions to mark traffic for service quality, but there is no guarantee that the network will respect those marks, says Jennings. If WebRTC were used over a corporate network controlled by the company, this problem could be dealt with. "The fear is what happens when applications enable click-to-call that go outside the infrastructure," says Lazar.

Jennings says standards developers are working on including tools in WebRTC that will provide data about how it is performing so existing voice-quality management platforms or individual applications that integrate WebRTC can troubleshoot connections.

The key to quality is fixing issues before they result in packet loss and recovering quickly if there is a problem, says Linden, and these are being worked into the standard as well. "We need to be sure it works and provide statistics. You need to know what's going on."

The technology has issues that need to be solved. Despite policies to the contrary, it is likely workers will use applications that leverage WebRTC while they are connected to the corporate network, Lazar says, just as they use Dropbox today. "I don't see how you can stop it," he says.

One danger is that workers click to join WebRTC sessions without reading the terms that go with using the application. In that way they could lose rights to corporate data that gets shared over such a link, says Hank Levine, a partner the Washington, D.C., law firm Levine, Blaszak, Block and Boothby, which negotiates communication contracts for large corporations. "It's a little bit of a nightmare," he says.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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