Originally developed and introduced by Google as an open source project for browser-based real-time communication, WebRTC development and standardization has since been taken over by W3C.
WebRTC 1.0 (Released February 2015) enables browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat, and file sharing without the need for any external plug-ins, other than a compatible browser. Developers such as Google and Cisco are already building WebRTC-compliant solutions.
In theory, WebRTC promises fast collaborative audio/video session connection times, low audio/video latency and the capacity to share video at better quality (and lower bandwidth) than possible using Flash. While it is early days the capacity to embed audio and visual communication in a browser without use of plugins suggests that any device, platform or wearable solution could become a collaborative tool.
How can we use WebRTC?
“By integrating real-time communications directly into web browsers, WebRTC opens up a world of possibilities. For example, we will see rich image and video apps directly within our mobile or tablet browsers. We will also be able to share files directly without a software client. And any user will be able to broadcast and share live audio, video, and data—and it will be as simple as opening a web page,” explains Cisco Vice President and CTO Networked Experiences, Susie Wee.
The standard brings support for instant messaging, peer-to-peer file sharing, voice and video calls through the browser. Real-world examples of technology deployments include:
· Coutts & Co offers the Coutts Client Video Meeting Portal service to their wealth managers and private bankers, enabling personalized services to clients worldwide.
· Mobile field service solution, Fluke, enables teams to collaborate securely using the WebRTC-compatible ShareLive video call solution.
· Amazon has enabled WebRTC support in its devices, which can connect consumers with customer service representatives within ten seconds at the touch of a virtual button.
· Healthcare providers including Claris Healthcare and Regroup Therapy are deploying WebRTC in order to help patients get in contact with healthcare professionals faster.
These examples illustrate use of the technology for online support, product enquiries and internal communications, including as a replacement for expensive toll-free numbers.
WebRTC also enables companies to easily provide in-browser video-based customer support without need of expensive third-party services, though contact center technology needs to be bought to speed.
For customer support purposes, agents also gain deeper insight into customer context. “For instance, when a customer signs in and searches a website for something specific, then uses the WebRTC click-to-call feature, the agent will receive that context automatically,” NoJitter explains.
There are also implications for webinars, conferencing, education – wherever users need to communicate and share sounds, text, files and video. Because WebRTC is baked inside the browser participants should no longer need to install third party software components to take part.
There are also emerging collaborative solutions for WebRTC and wearables. One great example of such a solution combines WebRTC with indoor mapping and beacons technology to enable precise identification of where people are at work (eg. office, warehouse, conference room).
In theory, at least, it will be possible to visit a website and collaborate with anyone, anywhere in real-time using a browser. That’s the theory, but not the reality – at least, not yet.
What’s in the way?
For all the potential some challenges remain. Browser support, bandwidth and notification hurdles need to be overcome.
When it comes to browsers, Chrome, Opera and Firefox support WebRTC but Apple has announced no plans (though third party apps can enable RTC on iOS) and Microsoft only recently began working with the technology in limited form inside its new Edge browser. Consumer-focused services like WhatsApp and Facebook already use WebRTC within their messaging solutions.
Until every browser supports the standard the ecosystem will remain polarized. How can users rely on these collaborative tools if there’s a chance the person they need to work with can’t use them as well?
Bandwidth is another obstacle. As this article explains, bandwidth demands for large-scale conferences are annoyingly high and while a media server can mitigate this, those technologies aren’t yet widely available.
Finally, there are notifications. In its current incarnation when making Web-based calls there’s no efficient way to notify people they have incoming communication. This will change once Web Notifications are welded within WebRTC, but this won’t take place this year. It’s also not possible to contact a conventional landline using WebRTC, though communications providers are working to resolve this.
Despite these significant challenges, there is high expectation for the technology. “We expect an explosion of audio and video applications when WebRTC development tools become more widely available and used by the huge web developer community. Startups and students who have only a basic understanding of P2P communication technologies will create these apps,” writes Wee.
Disruptive Analysis believes WebRTC support will be built into over 6 billion devices by 2019. The general consensus seems to be that once hurdles are overcome this new technology could drive significant transformation in making collaborative tools accessible, available and easy to deploy.
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I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.