WebRTC – A Disruptive Force?

WebRTC

WebRTC promises much – and a lot of it is free. Until now the lack of universal browser compatibility had held up wider uptake but 2017 will now see the two key missing browsers from Microsoft and Apple come out to play so expect that all to change.

It’s been six years now since Google open sourced intellectual property it had purchased in previous years and the chatter intensified over Web Real Time Communications, or WebRTC as it became better known as.

The prospect of WebRTC excited many at the time but it would be fair to say that the potential it heralded has never been realised so far as the hyperbole shifted towards the likes of IoT, NFV and Cloud.

So, what exactly is WebRTC and where are we at in terms of applications and commercial, mainstream uptake?

WebRTC is an API (application program interface) standard that enables real-time voice, text and video communications capabilities. It is about putting real time capabilities into a standard browser without the need for downloads, plugins or Flash.

According to Bin Guan, Chief Technology Officer at Yorktel, the video managed services company that provides professional services for the assessment, design, integration, and management of video and audio communications, says there are a couple of obstacles laying in the path of mainstream or wider adoption.

Guan says that firstly, settling on the right standards has been a major factor impeding WebRTC’s progress.

“For audio, the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) ratified the Opus codec in 2012, making it an MTI (mandatory-to- implement) codec for WebRTC. What’s nice about that decision is that Opus is a free and open standard.

When it comes to the video side of WebRTC, there are two standards vying for the MTI position: VP8 and H.264. VP8 is owned by Google and created by On2 Technologies. It’s currently supported by Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers, and proponents of VP8 like the fact that while Google owns the codec, it has irrevocably released all the VP8 patents under a royalty-free public license.

The H.264 codec, on the other hand, has been around for 10 years, and it’s been the industry standard for much of that time, giving it an implementation advantage over VP8, which has only been around for two years. Two strikes against the H.264 codec, however, are the fact that developers are required to pay a royalty fee to use it, and it uses more bandwidth than VP8. The same group that developed the H.264 codec, however, released a high efficiency video coding (HEVC) codec (which is also being called H.265) in beta earlier this year, which provides double the data compression ratio compared with H.264.”

But, as Guan at Yorktel points out, one week before the IETF met to make a final decision on the MTI video codec, Cisco added another point in H.264’s favour by announcing it would pay for all H.264 licensing.

So, after several sessions and hearing multiple views on the VP8 vs. H.264 debate, the IETF’s decision was, ‘No Decision’.
Another factor keeping WebRTC from moving forward are the reported disagreements among the major stakeholders, such as Apple, Cisco, Google and Microsoft. While Google is clearly in the VP8 camp, Apple is aligned with H.264. Microsoft had kept quiet about WebRTC, which caused some to speculate that was due to the fact that WebRTC could potentially cannibalise some of Microsoft’s products, such as Skype, the fact that its browser did not support VP8, spoke volumes.

Until these industry giants can get on the same page, which will probably be dictated by the IETF’s eventual video codec decision, the industry is still largely in a wait-and- see mode. Once the standards are ratified, however, we’ll start to see movement in this space and then real progress can start to occur.”

Rob Pickering of IPCortex

Rob Pickering of IPCortex

Rush to Market?

Many observers are therefore concluding that once the governing body makes that decision on the video codec we will see a rush from those big players to make any necessary changes to their products to ‘play nice’ with this new video standard.

So, over the next 18-months expect to see a lot of action from these firms as well as start-ups looking to enter a more certain market.
Right now however we see two vendor camps; those that currently say that the commercial problem with the WebRTC proposition is that it flies in the face of investment in their own ‘proprietary’ UCaaS solutions.

Secondly, those that have built WebRTC into their platforms already in order to save themselves the time and money needed to do their own collaboration applications.

Rob Pickering, CEO of IPCortex, is one of the early adopters that has built WebRTC in to their product.

“WebRTC is not new – in fact it’s been five years since IPCortex did the UK’s first public demonstration of a call between a web browser and the PSTN using WebRTC. But, with standards now firm and browser support on the brink of ubiquity it’s now become much easier to realise the full benefits for the technology, and we believe we’re about to see WebRTC dramatically and fundamentally shift the way people communicate, for good.

The very fact that many organisations with a proprietary heritage are exploring WebRTC proves that it’s already disruptive. Lots of vendors are using it as an easy stepping stone into providing better collaboration tools for their own ecosystem – but if that’s their only aim, they’re missing the point.

The decision to stay proprietary is the right choice for a lot of vendors. Forcing customer lock in makes sense commercially, but also makes the product easier to develop and control owing to fewer variables. The problem is that for a lot of end users, only being able to effectively communicate inside an internal ecosystem is extremely limiting. Inviting external people into that fold can be complex where they may have to download specific apps or software just to do a single conference call. This timely context switch is distracting, inefficient, and does not tally with how our brains actually operate.

Open WebRTC-based contextual communications removes these barriers by embedding audio, visual, chat, file and desktop sharing, directly into web pages, browsers and even IoT and mobile platforms without plugins. It’s pervasive and developers are already building countless applications that solve the biggest challenges that we have with lots of UC platforms today; siloed non-unified platforms and distracting context switching. It means that, all of a sudden, businesses are able to make their comms platform work twice as hard – delivering the internal efficiencies they know that they need, whilst also enriching the experience for external contacts – whether they’re contractors or customers.

This is why developments like the recent announcement by Apple that they will support WebRTC for the first time in just a few months are so important. We’re entering into the next phase of communications where a URL effectively becomes a universal address point that can put communications directly into context. It delivers no loss of task locality, removes barriers and works well cognitively as people can just start communicating from the same space they’re already doing a task.”

Monetisation

Greg Zweig, Director of Solutions Marketing, at Genband told us that there is no contradiction in the fact that WebRTC is free.
“At its core WebRTC is a series of standards for media transport and signalling. It doesn’t ‘do’ anything by itself, its purpose is to simplify access. The power of WebRTC is that it creates a simple way to communication-enable web tools.

However, someone still has to create, market and sell the services it enables. The value of the core solution remains and should be enhanced…not diminished. WebRTC is not a replacement for a UC service or a contact centre solution, it’s another way to access those services, without a dedicated client. To be fair, a vendor of those services has to choose whether they simply want to emulate something they already make – such as making a web client that looks like a desktop client, or try to exploit the capabilities to create new services – such as concierge shopping service or moving a conversation from a chat bot to a live agent call.

At Genband we have leveraged WebRTC to both enhance our offers, such as a WebRTC version of our Smart Office Clients, as well as embedded it into innovative new offers such as our Omni Client Technology for UC or our Live Support Agents for customer engagements. WebRTC has already won and will continue to win.”

One company that is successfully monetising Genband’s WebRTC application is Voiceflex where Sales and Marketing Director Paul Taylor told us that he is marketing Visual Attendant (See picture – and look it up on YouTube).
“We are using the app ourselves on our website ‘Contact Us’ page. Sitting behind the invitation ‘Click to Call’ is the Genband Kandy app which allows us to direct the call anywhere within our organisation via a drop down box of options that appears when clicked. You can put any number and department function behind the user choices.”

Taylor says he has achieved a 100% sale to demonstration rate with this application which costs the user a monthly per usage fee.
We tested this feature and it worked first time. We’d used WebRTC on our Apple Macs and had previously installed Chrome and Firefox browsers. I used Chrome and it worked a dream.
Voiceflex is also launching a skinned version at the end of the year for resellers to either build their own branding or bespoke customer applications, for example, contact/buddy lists or latest customer news.
“This heralds a move away from app store downloads to web based apps,” says Taylor. “There is no need to get approval from the likes of Apple’s Apps store or Google store. It is a fast to market solution, you don’t need to employ web developers and its gets you an in through the door to cross sell other products and applications.”
Voiceflex are going one step further and plan to introduce their own platform and SIP trunk WebRTC enabled app in September. Instead of making calls over PSTN you use a web browser.
“Calls are free of charge over the open internet so finally we are disrupting the market with WebRTC.”

Gaining Traction
Calum Malcolm, CTO for Elitetele.com, says WebRTC is starting to gain traction and interest within the UC and communications space.
“The open-source protocol enables video, audio and file-sharing through a standard web browser, eliminating the need for platform-specific software, plugins, or vendor lock-in that complicates and raises the cost of existing video-conferencing solutions.
There are a plethora of solutions and applications – some open source and some Vendor specific. As an integrator and reseller the opportunity is intriguing with the key challenge being how to monetise the service. However, I believe that the opportunity is huge and can be a great benefit for UC solutions.
WebRTC has been a quiet revolution with little direct publicity but has been steadily growing in adoption especially in UC Video and voice applications. It is becoming increasingly powerful in connecting business with customers. The key benefits being:

  • Ease of use for end users, avoiding the use of multiple services.
  • Enables better customer interaction.
  • Improves internal collaboration.
  • It’s secure, if done properly, and has a lower cost of entry than some commercially provided solutions.

I don’t feel it has been a disruptive technology but it does provide Cloud and UC integrators the opportunity to provide disruptive solutions. For the majority of clients it will be a journey from traditional communications to the new world. The real opportunity
is to integrate existing services to the cloud using a combination of Public and Private cloud solutions, providing cost effective transformation of their services.

The debate around open source and vendor supplied solutions just opens up the opportunity further. The real value as an integrator is the ability to provide the best solution to meet a client’s requirements. Personally, I prefer open source, as the ability to mould the software is wider, and while the software is often seen as free there is more opportunity to gain revenue through consultancy and support.
As backing for the protocol grows with Microsoft and Google supporting it, the opportunity for growth over the next 12 months is encouraging. You may not hear about WebRTC directly but you will hear about the collaboration services and tools that use it as their foundation.”

Greg Zweig of Genband

Greg Zweig of Genband

WebRTC in a Nutshell:
WebRTC is an open framework for the web that enables Real Time Communications in the browser. It includes the fundamental building blocks for high-quality communications on the web, such as network, audio and video components used in voice and video chat applications.
These components, when implemented in a browser, can be accessed through a JavaScript API, enabling developers to easily implement their own RTC web app.
The WebRTC effort is being standardised on an API level at the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and at the protocol level at the IETF.
WebRTC is an open-source project initially supported by Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera browsers.
In January this year a preview of the WebRTC 1.0 API became available in Microsoft’s Edge browser then left Apple’s Safari as the lone non-supporter of the real-time communications protocol. However, in June 2017 Apple announced WebRTC will be supported in the Safari 11 and iOS 11 releases later this year.

Ed Says…

Last autumn when initially planning this article we anticipated many demand inhibiting caveats regarding browser compatibility and WebRTC uptake. As Phil Edholm, President of PKE Consulting, wrote in February, that for the last three years, the first comment out of naysayers was that Microsoft and Apple do not support WebRTC. Never mind that Chrome and Firefox are gaining in popularity; the fact that Edge and Safari did not support WebRTC has long served as the primary reason to continue with proprietary implementations, often based on last decade or even last millennium technology.

He was right but now we are down to just one, Apple, and they have announced compatibility by the end of 2017. Expect, therefore, WebRTC to begin a rapid climb up the ladder of hyperbole over the next 18-months.