Technology makes video and audio conferencing easy through Web browsers without clients or plug-ins. But Microsoft and Apple aren’t on board yet

WebRTC: Disruptive or oversold?

The latest disruptive technology said to be greater than sliced bread may be right in front of your nose.

It’s called WebRTC, a Javascript application programming interface (API) that allows multimedia communications through browsers. No clients to download and configure, no plug-ins. Just click a button and launch a video conference.

“Our opinion is that WebRTC will be a major revolution in the way that Web software and mobile applications are developed because it enables real-time interactions in a way that’s never been possible before,” says Doug Michaelides, managing director, Macadamian Technologies Inc., an Ottawa software development firm for companies like BlackBerry, Adobe, Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks and others.

Macadamia hosted a seminar Thursday on the technology for Ottawa-area IT companies and others to tout WebRTC’s possibilities.

“It will be an area we will want to play in.”

However others are more cautious in part because while the latest versions of Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera are WebRTC-enabled two of the biggest browsers aren’t –Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer and Apple Inc.’s Safari.

That could limit WebRTC’s future, says Andrew Davis, senior partner at Wainhouse Research, which specializes in looking at unified communications.

“It’s not clear how interoperable these things will be,” he said in an interview.

“And at least so far in my experience browser-based audio-video solutions don’t provide very good performance.”

 “I think there’s a chance both of these issues will be resolved over time,” Davis added. “But I don’t think it will be this year, and I’m not even sure it’s going to be next year.”

Michaelides has few doubts

It’s going to be a driver for innovation in Web-based software, he says, because it solves incompatibility problems with client-based communications apps. So the ease and frequency of ad-hoc communications over the Internet will increase.

Think of a WebRTC-enabled jobs Web site, he says, where candidates can immediately connect to a recruiter. Or a medical Web site that uses WebRTC to let people connect to an expert.

Akshay Sharma, Gartner’s research director for carrier network infrastructure, said in an interview that phone companies are interested in WebRTC because they could be the behind the scenes provider by letting them offer unified communications as a so-called over-the-top managed service – one that could be branded (think of a browser button on a Web site saying “Video chat brought to you by Bell Canada”).

In the U.S., carrier AT&T officials talk of huge plans for leveraging WebRTC, Sharma said.

He added that not only software companies see the potential, so do carrier network equipment makers like Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks are interested in the technology as well as companies making session border controllers.

Macadamian has already installed WebRTC in softphones for several customers, Michaelides said.

“One of the great things about WebRTC is that any developer with Javascript experience has the ability to integrated the technology into a Web site or Web app,” he said.

The real advantage will be integrating WebRTC into a business application and its workflow, he added.

Wainhouse Research analyst Bill Haskins noted in a recent report that among the advantages of WebRTC is that it’s free, there’s lots of JavaScript developers who can use the technology and it’s native to the browser.

On the other hand, he acknowledged, it’s still an emerging standard being worked on by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It also doesn’t – so far – address signaling, so it isn’t pervasive across all video and audio solutions.

In the same paper Davis noted that also missing are firewall traversal, management and monitoring solutions.

“Web RTC engineers are already arguing over what video codec to use and what signaling protocol would be appropriate,” he wrote.

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