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What In the World Is WebRTC?

Kelly TealWhen it comes to video collaboration, everyone is talking about WebRTC. But what is WebRTC and what does it mean for partners? These are good questions. But they don’t come with fast or easy answers, especially since WebRTC has yet to hit the mainstream.

WebRTC, or Real Time Communications, is an emerging open source video standard being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Backed by Google and Mozilla, WebRTC enables browser-to-browser applications for video chat, voice calling and peer-to-peer file sharing without plug-ins.

While still in the early stages, WebRTC has the potential to supplant device-native apps with Web-based ones that work on any device. Ideally, WebRTC will help the proliferation of video communications by making it more accessible to users via a browser. “The browser is the democratizing factor for endpoints; every business user uses the Web at this point,” noted Hyoun Park, principal analyst for Nucleus Research.

Notably, WebRTC has not been endorsed by Apple or Microsoft, two of the biggest names in mobility and collaboration, presumably because WebRTC competes with their proprietary FaceTime and Lync products, respectively.

Indeed, the arrival of WebRTC, a free and easy-to-use capability, appears to circumvent legacy video collaboration models.  

“What WebRTC does do is create the potential for an explosion of browser-based video endpoints, which will only connect to other endpoints running the same standard,” Wainhouse Research analyst Bill Haskins told Channel Partners.

Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, agreed. “WebRTC has some potential as it brings video to the browser. However, it doesn’t interoperate with legacy video, so in the short term it creates another island.”

Islands of video conferencing have become commonplace over the years as vendor hardware and software did not work well together. While that’s changing, with legacy vendors complying with standards and ensuring that their systems interoperate with each other, WebRTC only adds another layer of compliance.

In order to work with new WebRTC apps, video conferencing vendors must build support for the codec into their devices and software. Some already are doing that in anticipation of WebRTC opening video collaboration to millions more people around the world. As a result, those vendors report that they hope to sell their WebRTC-enabled phones to such users, rather than target them with a video conferencing platform.

While some analysts and industry observers are agog over WebRTC and its implications for boosting use of video collaboration, others remain skeptical. Among other things, they question WebRTC’s lack of signaling capabilities, which means the standard does not automatically equal pervasive audio and video, for example.

Haskins’s colleague, Andrew Davis, is one of those skeptics. In a March 2013 client brief, he asked, “Where are the dial plans, firewall traversal solutions, interoperability potential, and management and monitoring systems? And will enterprise users find the convenience versus quality tradeoffs acceptable? If WebRTC is indeed taking the communications industry in a completely new direction, we should all worry that it might be a dead end.”

A number of issues still must be resolved before WebRTC gains traction, and in the business world most of all. Still, Wainhouse’s Haskins cautions people not to underestimate the potential impact of WebRTC. “For us to say WebRTC will definitely not create some amount of short-term disruption in the enterprise communications industry would be shortsighted,” he wrote in March.

Nucleus Research’s Park said “this standard will allow companies to create truly equipment-neutral communications capabilities, but will also reduce hardware needs to the mobile and accessory-driven equipment that help provide value-added services. Smartphones, headsets and other ‘second-screen’ equipment will be increasingly important in a WebRTC-driven world.”

Dean Bubley, founder of industry analysis and consulting firm Disruptive Analysis, sees a similar future. In a February 2013 study, Bubley concluded that WebRTC will find applicability across all sectors, including telecom, consumer and, yes, enterprise. Disruptive Analysis forecasts call for 3 billion WebRTC-capable devices and 1 billion users by the end of 2016. PCs will use WebRTC first, followed by smartphones and tablets; the number of mobile devices using WebRTC will ramp from the second half of 2014 on, the firm found.

Bubley said he is impressed by the speed of development with which prototypes, demos and early commercial offers are appearing, even before the standards are finalized. “Problems are being resolved in weeks or months, not years,” he said. “Unlike most telecom-only solutions, developer interest seems to be accelerating, fed by Googles evangelism and WebRTCs appearance on the list of cool new additions to HTML5.”

Given this speed of development, he said the outlook for WebRTC could be very different by the end of the year “with much greater clarity about different OS and browser support, and the first ‘stars’ of the new technology starting to coalesce.”

With all of that in mind, Haskins advised channel partners to make “a smart move” by gaining a WebRTC competency. “Partners with contact center or other [business-to-consumer] expertise should be the first to jump on the WebRTC bandwagon,” he said in an interview. “Understanding how to bring WebRTC-based clients into other standards-based solutions is likely the right place for a partner to focus.”

Sierra Summit Group Founder Pam Avila offered similar insight. “The opportunity that WebRTC will create for the channel comes from the ease with which video and communication products will be integrated into the larger infrastructure,” she said. “In other words, WebRTC is going to make it easier to implement UC&C solutions, which will help the channel.”


MORE INFORMATION

Download the Pulse Digital Issue, “The Value of Video Collaboration,” by clicking here or by visiting the Channel Partners Resource Center.


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