Is This WebRTC’s Year?

Editor’s note: Itay Rosenfeld is the CEO of Voxbone and has more than 13 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. 

WebRTC is an open-source standard (spearheaded by Google in 2012 through the World Wide Web Consortium) enabling browsers to make voice or video calls without needing any plug-ins. Using WebRTC, a user can establish a voice or video call by clicking on a button in a browser representing the other endpoint.

This other end could be a person, a conferencing platform, a customer support service, a video source, etc. This capability clearly has massive potential for altering how consumers communicate online – not just between themselves but also with companies that provide everyday services.

Will WebRTC take over traditional telecom this year?

Despite its promising future, WebRTC still has a long way to go before it comes anywhere near replacing phone number-based dialing and systems. However, I believe the coming year will offer major WebRTC adoption in both the telecom augmentation space and the web app space. Below are some of the most significant trends that I have noticed and believe will continue to gain traction.

Live voice and video chat for customer support. Using WebRTC to integrate a company’s website traffic into agent-based contact center interactions is an obvious business case. Services like Amazon’s Mayday and AMEX’s Live Video Chat have proven that WebRTC technology improves the interaction between web application users and the contact center.

And using WebRTC for customer support has other benefits. For example, at the start of a call, the support agent will know who you are and what page you’re on, a tremendous efficiency gain that both consumers and enterprises will undoubtedly appreciate.

Click-to-join” a conference. Another key area is using WebRTC to join virtual conference calls. Until today, video is primarily reserved for high-end conference rooms and for voice access to a conference – most attendees join with a phone number.

Simple “click to join” audio integration with WebRTC can provide advantages both in voice quality through HD and spatial audio, as well as reduced costs for conferencing service providers and for users. Not to mention avoiding the common conference call blunders highlighted in the YouTube video that went viral last year.

Going global. WebRTC is opening the door for service providers to extend global offers to consumers and businesses with devices that are not connected to their own phone networks, or when users are using another network. For example, WebRTC would allow your wireless carrier to extend a communications service (e.g. video, voice, SMS, etc.) to any device on any network in the world without the need for a dedicated app that must be compatible with the majority of smartphones (e.g. WhatsApp).

For example, services like T-Mobile’s recently announced Wi-Fi calling feature could be accomplished very easily, technologically speaking, if it used WebRTC (currently, it does not). This value was confirmed at CES this year, where AT&T was announced to be the first U.S. carrier to support WebRTC.

New services, new businesses. Beyond traditional telecom, several new applications are emerging that use real-time interactions as part of a web application or even totally new business models. For example, a number of micro consulting/services sites have emerged (e.g. PopExpert) that bring together experts (in the case of PopExpert, life coaches) with their consumers into face-to-face online consultations.

Another example is social apps using WebRTC to enable voice or video interaction, such as NTT’s SkyTalk. Many new WebRTC implementations are being developed and will come to market in 2015.

Who will adopt WebRTC?

Although all of these trends are exciting, it is critical to look at them from a business perspective to assess the potential for mass adoption in the coming year. I believe the coming year will serve as WebRTC’s transition from a novelty and a basis for free communications, to the basis for offering business-related or subscription-based solutions to consumers, specifically from conferencing providers or online expert consultation providers.

However, two things need to happen before WebRTC can successfully enable the above described use cases:

1. Microsoft, Google and Apple need to end their strategic war games in WebRTC

They have been doing so since its launch, which is why WebRTC was only supported by a limited number of browsers (Chrome and Firefox) for most of its existence – not enough to reach critical mass. In addition, there were disputes around which video codec to use, which practically excluded the use of video with WebRTC.

Toward the end of 2014, both Google and Microsoft took steps to remove the roadblocks that have prevented widespread adoption of WebRTC to date. In the (hopefully near) future, Chrome, Internet Explorer and Firefox will all support WebRTC with video moving forward, thus reaching critical mass. There is no news yet on WebRTC support in Safari.

2. Quality of experience needs to improve

As WebRTC will be used for paid services, providers will be expected to deliver a quality experience that equals or exceeds the experience of the telephone network that consumers are used to. We’ve all experienced dropped or unintelligible Internet calls more than we’d care to, but we often deal with it because it’s not paid for.

While the convenience of WebRTC or the availability of HD audio and video may be a draw, drop-outs, echoes or other user-experience issues may limit its use and value, which is why solutions are being developed in this area, as well.

The combination of assured quality and WebRTC support for existing codecs and all major browsers (except Safari), may just make 2015 the year that WebRTC really takes off. But as you can see, we’ve got a lot of work to do before we get there.