Microsoft plans to make Skype calls possible through Internet Explorer, but it's an open question how far the same capability will be extended to rival browsers Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
Microsoft announced Monday that Skype integration was heading to IE via the Object RTC (ORTC) application programming interface (API) for WebRTC, an open source project aimed at embedding voice, text and video communications capabilities in Web browsers.
The ORTC API is not in the current version of WebRTC, but is expected to be in the next version, WebRTC 1.1. The latter is planned for late 2015. The ORTC Community Group within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has issued a "Call for Implementations," which means the specification has reached a significant level of stability. Microsoft has been a participant in ORTC development.
User convenience is a key advantage to having Skype or other video-calling service work in a browser. WebRTC eliminates the need to download a plug-in or launch a separate client.
"Imagine you'll be able to simply open IE and make a call to friends, family, or get real-time support for that new device right from your browser," Microsoft said in a statement.
But how far that convenience will be extended to IE competitors Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox is not clear. Currently, Google plans to support ORTC in Chrome, but not the H.264 video codec that will be used by Microsoft.
Google, which calls its video calling technology Google+ Hangouts, supports its homegrown VP8 codec. Mozilla has yet to commit to either codec.
"Without a single standard and broad interoperable support, the benefits of webification (of video calls) will be muted," Phil Edholm, an analyst at PKE Consulting, said in an email.
If Google and Microsoft were to go separate ways on the codec, then voice would likely work through Skype on Chrome, but "video may be an issue," Edholm said.
The companies have not drawn any lines in the sand, so lots of jockeying is expected to continue in the development of WebRTC 1.1.
"The codec issue means this is still going to be fragmented, until a decision is reached about the mandatory codec for WebRTC," Tsahi Levent-Levi, an independent consultant on VoIP and WebRTC, said. "This will continue well into 2015."
In the meantime, Microsoft says its goal is to "ensure easier interoperability between Web browsers and billions of existing communications endpoints, including SIP-based VoIP endpoints, public switched telephone networks (PSTNs) and video teleconferencing systems."
Industry observers expect Microsoft to eventually add WebRTC support to Lync, the company's unified communications platform.
The W3C and the Internet Engineering Task Force are working on standards for WebRTC, which is already enabled in Chrome and Firefox.
Other companies that have embraced it include TenHands, which provides video conferencing through Facebook.
While WebRTC does not have the security or quality of service to replace business-grade voice over IP infrastructure or video conferencing systems, it is expected to be useful in online games and in public-facing websites.
The latter, for example, could add click-to-call capabilities for customers, without having to invest in as many trunks or 800-number services.
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