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WebRTC emerged in the UC space over four years ago with the promise of turning any Web browser into a softphone, video conferencing endpoint, or screen-sharing application, without the need for plug-ins or downloads.
Beyond extending UC platforms to the browser, WebRTC offered the ability for application developers to embed voice and video capabilities into any Web-based application. By using WebRTC, developers could enable click-to-call, video conferencing or screen sharing from any device or any app, leveraging back-end UC platforms or via direct peer-to-peer connections between individuals.
As a result, WebRTC garnered a great deal of hype among UC vendors, end users and analysts for its ability to enable UC virtually anywhere. Now, four years later, you could easily make the case that WebRTC has failed to live up to its promise.
Browser incompatibility stalls WebRTC adoption
Limitations are largely due to browser incompatibility issues. Only Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome support the 1.0 version of the WebRTC specification. There's still no common standard for a video codec with camps divided along the fault line of either supporting Google's VP8/VP9 versus MPEG-LA's H.264/265. Microsoft and others continue to push for an alternative means of session definition called ORTC (object real-time communications).
As a result, enterprise WebRTC adoption continues to stall. The Nemertes 2015-16 Unified Communications and Collaboration Benchmark, based on data gathered from nearly 50 mid to large-size enterprises, shows that just 4% have deployed WebRTC to date, while another 32% were evaluating its use. These numbers are largely unchanged from the previous survey.
Those enterprises with no WebRTC plans largely cite the lack of a demonstrable business case, often because browser incompatibility means WebRTC deployments would find a limited addressable audience.
The hidden nature of WebRTC adoption
Despite these challenges, the WebRTC ecosystem has grown rapidly over the last several years. Many contact center vendors offer WebRTC-based capabilities for click-to-call and video for customer-facing websites. These vendors do this either natively or through partnerships with companies like CafeX.
Communications infrastructure vendors like AudioCodes, Dialogic, Oracle and Sonus deliver services for WebRTC security, transcoding, management and integration with existing platforms. API vendors like Agora.io, TokBox, Twilio and even AT&T enable application developers to build WebRTC-based capabilities into their websites and apps.
It's this ability to leverage WebRTC to embed voice, video and screen sharing into dedicated apps that is driving most of the WebRTC adoption today. Applications like Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Cisco Spark and Unify Circuit use WebRTC within their native apps, or support WebRTC-compliant Web browsers like Chrome. Services like Blue Jeans and Lifesize now support plug-in-free video conferencing through a browser.
Thus, many organizations and individuals are likely already using WebRTC without realizing it.
Unveil underlying technology; boost browser support
Longer term, there's still hope for overcoming the challenges that have stalled browser ubiquity.
Microsoft is supporting ORTC/WebRTC in its Edge browser. Several developer groups are working on enabling WebRTC support within the Webkit browser engine used by Safari. Members of the Internet Engineering Task Force's RTCweb working group agreed on a mandate in 2014 for supporting both H.264 and VP8 in WebRTC-compliant Web browsers. And last year, Cisco announced Project Thor, an open-standards effort to create a royalty-free codec as an alternative to H.265.
The reality of WebRTC in 2016 is that despite the challenges around browser and video codec interoperability, WebRTC adoption continues to increase, though it's not always apparent to those clicking to make a call through an app, or a browser, that WebRTC is enabling that call.
The challenge for WebRTC proponents is to increase the visibility of the underlying technology, while solving broader interoperability and support concerns.
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