Why now is the time for WebRTC

Utilized by billions of users and thousands of applications, this open-source technology has finally become the new standard for real-time communications over the web.

unified communications
NEC Corp. (CC BY 2.0)

More than six years ago an ambitious, real-time communications project was spearheaded by Google. What emerged was a powerful, open-source tool capable of equipping web browsers with the ability to support voice and video conferencing and data sharing.

Aptly named WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication), this collection of protocols and interfaces enabled audio and video setup over peer-to-peer connections without the need for expensive or complex back-end software. Most appealing, WebRTC made it possible to deploy click-to-start meetings without downloading a dedicated app or plug-in.

Despite this, WebRTC faced hurdles in the early years, including battles over which standards and codecs would be implemented and a lack of support from major browsers and legacy communications providers. But now we’ve reached a tipping point— with more than three billion dollars of investment involved—WebRTC is finally starting to see critical adoption.

Here are the reasons why WebRTC will now (officially) take over enterprise collaboration.

All major browsers are onboard

WebRTC is now fully endorsed and adopted by all the major browsers, including Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

When the platform launched in 2012, Chrome was the first to provide support—followed shortly by Firefox, and then the lesser-known Norwegian browser. Opera. Microsoft began to embrace WebRTC with the introduction of its Edge browser in 2015 but caused confusion as it tried to introduce an alternative set of real-time communications APIs. This move slowed progress toward an agreed upon set of standards and protocols.

Meanwhile, Apple didn’t officially embed support for WebRTC until last year’s release of Safari 11. The lack of support from Apple, which sports the second most popular browser behind Chrome, left a major gap in enterprise video vendors adopting a WebRTC-based platform. This slowed adoption, despite the obvious benefits such as URL-based meeting rooms, the elimination of clunky app downloads for users and improvements to overall call quality and reliability.

Without native WebRTC, users needed to install separate browser plugins to make video conferencing features usable in a web browser. This was impractical and stifled innovation around WebRTC-powered collaboration platforms. But now that all the major browsers are on-board, WebRTC can truly shine as its protocols and APIs are built into nearly every one of the billions of browser instances around the world.

An even playing field for collaboration providers

A new wave of conferencing providers is using the software stack to challenge preconceptions about interoperability and the future of collaboration over the Web.

This is perhaps the most exciting new development around WebRTC: it is an open-source technology leveraging the expertise of thousands of developers. That means the technological playing field has been leveled among conferencing providers in a way that truly allows vendors with the most innovative product to rise above the pack.

Prior to WebRTC, the goodness of a video conferencing platform was derived from its software codec and interoperability (a fancy term for how conferencing software integrates with video or phone hardware). After all, what is great design or user-experience worth if your conference calls are shoddy and unreliable.

This provided legacy companies a built-in advantage since they could hire a larger number of more experienced engineers to develop their software stack. Newcomers to the space would struggle to compete with larger companies with more dedicated resources, but that’s where WebRTC comes in to narrow the gap.

WebRTC benefits from having thousands of software developers working on it in concert, standardizing conferencing protocols and making interoperability less of a concern. Most companies can’t compete with thousands of independent developers contributing code to a platform—even organizations as large as Google and Apple pale in comparison to a web community-driven effort. WebRTC is the slingshot that makes the David versus Goliath scenario now viable in the well-established video collaboration space.

New user expectations around reliability and ease-of-use

At this point, most consumers are using some form of social app for daily communication. Whether that be FaceTime, WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat, these apps are now in the hands of more than 5 billion users. They all offer one-touch voice or video options directly in the app (perhaps some through utilizing WebRTC), and have become an integral part of everyday life, particularly for younger generations.

It’s only a natural evolution that the expectations around enterprise communications would come to match those of consumer-friendly services. The workers of today are not interested in hours of tutorials to learn their company’s conferencing systems, they want an experience that’s as simple and reliable as the apps they use every day. WebRTC makes that experience possible by universalizing the conference experience through web browsers, enabling click-to-start, and removing the hassle of extra software.

The shift to WebRTC is about more than just providing an accessible end-user experience, it’s about creating an entirely new layer upon which visual and audio communications are built. It makes for a more seamless video experience, and requires fewer battery, bandwidth, and network resources.

Where it was once a coder’s pipe dream, with the incorporation of WebRTC support across all the major browsers, the platform has emerged as the new industry standard for real-time communications. With a growing number of use cases for video communication across industries such as healthcare, education, insurance claims and even augmented reality— the benefits of products that can communicate directly within web browsers outweighs the influence of the previous legacy options. With ubiquitous browser support and increased reliability across the video conferencing experience, WebRTC hasn’t just arrived, it’s claimed a seat at the head of the table.

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