What is WebRTC?

New standard for browser-based, real-time conferencing could be a game changer

Enterprise trade shows have recently been full of chatter about WebRTC (Real-Time Communication). Descriptions like game changer and disruptive technology have been used. But, what is WebRTC and does it really matter?

The simple explanation is that WebRTC enables browser-to-browser audio and video conferencing. The user can establish a call by clicking on an icon representing the other endpoint.  For example, a customer could click on a button labeled agent and choose either audio or video to complete the call.  The other end could be a friend, colleague, video source, or radio station – anything capable of having a built-in browser.

Six things you need to know about WebRTC

What is significant and new is that a separate conferencing client isn’t needed. And, the only technology needed by the partner is a standard, up-to-date browser.

Jason Uberti of Google, one of the industry’s most visible advocates of WebRTC, says that the technology is generating excitement among players across the communications spectrum.  This includes Cisco, Microsoft, Ericsson, and many others. He says this is because ``the premise of WebRTC is to build real-time communications into the fabric of the web, where every browser has a built-in, state-of-the-art communications stack.”

WebRTC has a big push behind it. Promoted by Google and deployed in Chrome, other major players are supporting or intend to support the effort. Microsoft announced its intent to support it when it becomes a standard. Every major conferencing vendor is acutely following its development.

What’s underneath?

The WebRTC engine within the browser uses HTML5 and Java scripting to develop fairly simple routines to capture, control, and send audio and video between two browsers. A WebRTC stack is also available in C++.  

There are plans for development of a data channel that would support media that represent more traditional data types. Companies such as ThruPoint claim application development times that are dramatically less than they were with previous development tools. Currently the supported codec is VP8, which has been widely deployed but not by the big four – Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco and Apple. Transport is normally done with SRTP (secure RTP) which enhances security through AES encryption. And, the removal of video and audio clients and plugins increases security.

Much of the promise of WebRTC is in the fact that it provides APIs from the browser to the underlying hardware. An HTM5 command, GetUserMedia, is a key feature that can execute capture of a codecs output.

It’s currently built into Chrome 21, Opera 12, Firefox 17, and Internet Explorer (via Chrome Frame). TenHands, a startup video conferencing company, has embedded their WebRTC capability into FaceTime. Vidtel, a cloud based video bridge provider, has already incorporated the WebRTC stack.

The Microsoft question

However, a key question remains. Will Microsoft embrace or attempt to hinder this effort?  If they embrace WebRTC, it could become the major communications platform for decades. If they chose to hinder the effort, it will slow progress on its adoption.  Based on presentations at Enterprise Connect, Microsoft’s official position is that they will support it when it becomes a standard. But it’s not clear who would establish the standard. It seems more likely that if the market embraces WebRTC, it will become a defacto standard.

Phil Hippensteel is a professor, consultant and writer with over 40 years’ experience in higher education. He can be reached at pjhippen@centurylink.net.

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