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WebRTC support widens, but codec conflicts could erupt

In the world of WebRTC, expect the video codec wars to ramp back up in 2018. Also, learn how browsers could become irrelevant in the web-based communications tool.

It's time for my yearly predictions of WebRTC and where it's headed. This round is especially interesting, largely...

because Apple has joined the party with WebRTC support in Safari.

After a journey of six years, WebRTC is now closer to an official specification. The World Wide Web Consortium, an international web standards organization, announced this year the WebRTC specification is "design-complete." This milestone means WebRTC is closer to being standardized.

The reality, however, is more promising. Most industry players haven't waited around. They've already rolled out commercial products based on WebRTC. It seems WebRTC waits for no one -- not even its own standardization process.

In parallel, Adobe finally announced the end of life for Flash by 2020. It took time and some blatant hints from browser vendors that made Flash an opt-in alternative, rather than supporting it by default.

When you reflect on both these announcements, the message should be clear to anyone wary of WebRTC: The browser-based, real-time communications tool is stronger than ever.

WebRTC support varies among browsers

All browser vendors are now working toward aligning their implementations with the official proposed draft of WebRTC, but none of them are there yet. In 2018, the use of shims, like adapter.js, will still be necessary if you want to support cross-browser WebRTC applications.

It seems WebRTC waits for no one -- not even its own standardization process.

In the past year, Microsoft Edge added some WebRTC support. The browser now supports H.264 and VP8 video codecs. However, Edge's quality and richness is still not on par with Chrome or Firefox. As expected, Internet Explorer has not seen any official WebRTC implementation, and it won't see any moving forward.

The surprise came from Apple, which announced WebRTC support in Safari on Mac and iOS 11, but the Apple implementation is currently lacking. It supports only H.264 and has some instability. It will take time to mature, which will take us well into 2018.

Apple will stay focused on H.264, and it will not add VP8 or VP9 codec support in 2018. Apple probably won't add High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) or H.265 support in 2018 -- maybe in 2019. As a result:

  • Voice-centric applications will enjoy support across all modern browsers in 2018.
  • Video applications will need to rethink their video codec decisions.
  • The video codec wars of WebRTC will be back in force in 2018.

Are browsers becoming irrelevant?

WebRTC came to life to get real-time communications into web browsers. The focus has always been in the browser, but enterprises are using WebRTC differently.

For its part, mobile has always been a game of apps. If you didn't have an app, you didn't exist. Many users are now happy to see Safari on iOS supporting WebRTC, as it enables use cases and scenarios to run without the need to install an application.

For WebRTC, the desktop has always been about browser support and coverage. But, in 2017, a shift happened. Developers and enterprises are exploring the alternative of offering a desktop application as part of their web service. They do it by adopting Electron, an application wrapper for Chromium, Google's open source infrastructure behind Chrome.

This introduces a mindset shift. Support for the desktop now means supporting Chrome and any other browser that's easy to support for WebRTC. The strategy is to entice users to download and use a desktop application built using Electron. The result is the need for browser parity in WebRTC implementations is becoming less of an issue in the enterprise. Instead, support for Chrome and Electron take center stage.

Video Codec War II

A new video codec war is brewing in WebRTC, but it's still below the surface. In the previous round, VP8 and H.264 were deemed mandatory codecs in browsers.

Apple changed all that. It implemented only H.264 for Safari, staying mum about any additional codecs. At the same time, Apple added HEVC support to its camera and players across Mac and iOS devices -- a move that can hint at the future video codec in WebRTC for Apple.

While the current generation of video codecs is VP8 and H.264, the next one is focused on VP9 and HEVC. On the horizon, we can already see AV1, the successor of VP9. AV1 is an open source codec with strong community backing by the Alliance for Open Media. In 2017, the alliance grew to 32 vendors, with Facebook joining in November. Apple is not part of this alliance.

This intrigue will keep product managers and developers awake at night, with no end in sight in 2018. This silent war is going to get louder in 2018.

API platforms and live streaming keep rolling 

We've seen a lot of activity around WebRTC in API platforms during 2016 and 2017. This will continue into 2018. As examples in the past year, Cisco stopped onboarding new customers to its Tropo platform, Sonus and Genband merged, and NTT Communications launched an API platform for WebRTC.

In 2018, we'll see some communications-platform-as-a-service players -- that are focused on voice and text messaging -- join the fray and add WebRTC capabilities to stay relevant. The next two challenges for API platforms with WebRTC will focus on machine learning and the introduction of augmented and virtual reality capabilities.

Developers and enterprises still need to plan for and contend with WebRTC nuances and challenges for the next few years.

Also, as I predicted, we saw an uptick this past year in live video streaming in which a single person or small group of people broadcast media at low latency. Technology vendors focused on video streaming, such as Wowza and Red5 Pro, officially launched their low-latency, WebRTC-based streaming platforms.

We've also seen Akamai testing the waters with WebRTC and Limelight Networks announcing a low-latency streaming service. At the same time, Vimeo acquired Livestream.

In the enterprise space, webinar platforms are warming up to WebRTC to improve the quality of the stream and reduce the latency for viewers. This, in turn, makes the webinars more interactive and appealing. This trend will continue well into 2018.

Expect content delivery networks to launch more live-streaming services that will be based on WebRTC. Additionally, enterprises will test the waters in live streaming their events via webinars -- either inside or outside the enterprise.

In 2018, WebRTC will fade into the background. It's starting to get hard to find vendors that use WebRTC -- not because they don't want to announce it, but because it's natural to do so. This is true for those who deploy their services inside browsers, in mobile apps and in desktop apps.

It will get tougher in 2018, which only means WebRTC is now fading into the background and becoming obvious for users. Developers and enterprises still need to plan for and contend with WebRTC nuances and challenges for the next few years.

This was last published in December 2017

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