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WebRTC: Bringing real-time communications to the next level

The emergence of Web real-time communications promises voice- and video-enabled Web browsers. What should enterprises do to prepare?

Real-time communications -- not just email and social tools -- is crucial for employee collaboration and productivity, which is why every business still uses desk phones despite the availability of sophisticated software for unified communications and collaboration technology.

But traditional telecommunications carriers are moving their PSTN infrastructures into retirement, and video calling is becoming increasingly relevant across all verticals. As the voice and video markets evolve, the industry is looking for the public communications network of the future. According to a Web real-time communications summit this year at Enterprise Connect in Orlando, WebRTC could fill that need.

WebRTC is an emerging standard that enables users to make voice and video calls through Web browsers without needing to implement a multimedia client or plugin. The standard's possible implications for both the business and the consumer space could be huge, but it won't change the communications world overnight, said Brent Kelly, president and principal analyst at KelCor Inc. and Constellation Research. "People have begun asking, 'What can we do with this?' There are some pretty fantastic things that can happen here, but will it change everything [immediately]? Probably not," he said.

Web real-time communications: Management must be considered first

Enterprise IT organizations have recognized the potential value in layering voice communications directly into a Web browser and instantly allowing content sharing and collaboration. Before businesses get carried away, however, they should also question what has to go on behind the scenes to get this work, said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director for Mokena, Ill.-based Nemertes Research Group Inc.

The latest versions of Firefox and Google Chrome currently support the early stages of WebRTC, with Internet Explorer and Safari trailing behind. In the future, users might be able to locate a phone number online and click to dial straight from the browser, but enterprises need to consider WebRTC management before Google can be thought of as the new phone book.

"Just like enterprises putting software on users' mobile devices on the corporate network to protect from loss or theft … we will need corporate policies and management tools so there can be some sort of capture for document retention -- so that the browser doesn't own the content, just like the carriers don't own the content [on telecommunications networks]," said Hank Levine, partner at Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby LLP, a firm that handles network services agreement negotiations and telecommunications-related matters.

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WebRTC also won't be immune to the bandwidth and network resource concerns that come along with video calls. Network administrators "are already worried about video bandwidth," Nemertes' Lazar said. Because traffic will be coming from the browser, enterprises will have to try to set the right priority for these packets in order for the network to handle WebRTC, he said. "There is no magic bullet -- but enterprises will have to address this new traffic."

Bandwidth, however, won't be the main concern once WebRTC infiltrates the enterprise, said Cullen Jennings, Cisco Fellow and engineer. "The compliance and privacy issues are going to be the showstoppers," he said.

Innovations in real-time communications aren't stuck at the starting line

The concept of WebRTC might still be in its infancy, but providers aren't waiting for the standard to be finalized. A WebRTC innovation session at Enterprise Connect -- which included developers from such UC and cloud communications vendors as TenHands, Plivo and Twilio -- highlighted several interesting use cases for WebRTC, incorporating easy video calling from within existing applications.

The initial use case for enterprises most likely will be in customer-facing websites, through embedded click-to-call and click-to-video applications. A user who finds a company's phone number on its website can simply click on the number to make a call rather than leave the browser, Nemertes' Lazar said.

And WebRTC can eliminate the need to download a plug-in once it's standardized across all browsers. "People are really excited that endpoints will all be talking the same language," said Jan Linden, senior product manager at Google.

The PSTN won't be going away within the next few years, but WebRTC will help accelerate its retirement, Constellation Research's Kelly said. "There will be a forced migration off of the PSTN eventually -- all of our phone calls are becoming IP and we don't realize it," he said. "WebRTC provides an easy avenue to take existing replacements and expand their usage and make it very user friendly."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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