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WTF is... WebRTC?

Voice and video communications game changer

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Feature Last week’s release of Firefox 18.0 saw the not-for-profit browser gaining “preliminary” support for a technology called WebRTC. Folk downloading the browser afresh or updating from a previous release may have been keener on Firefox’s new support for Apple’s “retina” displays or the browser’s promised JavaScript performance leap. But bringing WebRTC to the fore - it has been present in developer-centric, pre-release versions of Firefox for a while, and tucked behind a disabled-by-default preference at that - puts this little-known technology on path some analysts will see it become a major disruptive force on the mobile and VoIP industries.

Firefox 18’s release sees the browser join Google’s Chrome - from version 23 - and Opera - version 12 - as one of just three desktop browsers supporting WebRTC in their public releases. This is a big step forward for a technology that’s been in the public domain for more than 18 months, but has been in development even longer than that. But it’s one that will start to make its presence felt in 2013.

WebRTC means real-time communications between browsers, in particular sound and video communications, on a peer-to-peer, page-to-page basis. It comprises browser code that Google open sourced back in June 2011 and which implements an emerging standard API being developed co-operatively by web standards bodies the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Their efforts derive from the work on HTML 5 and related technologies carried out by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

WebRTC is part of HTML 5, even though its developers’ efforts are still a work in progress. THe ITEF’s role is to define what functionality the APIs need to expose and to establish the foundations for that functionality through new or evolved protocols, such as connection management, quality of service, security and such. The W3C has to define the details of the APIs web developers will use to deliver WebRTC services: to initiate connections and to access the user’s hardware - microphone and webcam, for instance.

Under construction

The ITEF has been working on WebRTC protocols since May 2011, and while its various drafts were all updated during Q4 2012, they are nonetheless some way from completion. The W3C’s specification was last formally updated in August 2012 and “is not complete”, the organisation’s WebRT working group warns. The current version of the API “is subject to major changes and... not intended for implementation”, even though that’s exactly what Google, Mozilla and co. are doing.

The W3C WebRTC working group was due to have reached the important stage of releasing a “Last Call [for contributions]” API draft specification in the spring of 2012, but it now appears that we won’t see this until well into 2013, possibly as late as the third quarter, insiders hint. Assuming no one raises any serious objections, the specification could formally endorsed by the W3C as a “Recommendation” by the end of the year.

On the software side, Google’s royalty free WebRTC project is also ongoing, its goal to “enable rich, high quality, RTC applications to be developed in the browser via simple Javascript APIs and HTML 5” - in short, to implement the code that will allow web browser engines to respond to the API calls. Its efforts are supported by the Chrome browser team at Google, and by Mozilla and Opera, but ultimately it’s work will need to be aligned to the spec slowly being set in stone by the W3C. Telecoms giant Ericsson is keen too, and has built WebRTC into its esoteric Bowser browser for Android and iOS.

In addition to the API code, Google is also offering key voice and video codecs WebRTC currently supports: iSAC for wideband links, iLBC for narrower connections, and VP8 for video.

Once all these elements are in place and aligned to standards, service providers can begin building Skype-style applications into web pages. It won’t take long after this point for voice and video calls to be just something any website can do.

Communications revolution

It’s not hard to imagine tech support calls being tied directly to vendors’ knowledge-base sites, for example. Don’t understand what you’re reading, or is the documentation not helping you fix a problem? Then just click here to talk to a human being about it.

This can be done today, of course, but in forms that are specific to the vendors implementing them. WebRTC opens the technology to all, not just those companies that can afford to build or license a proprietary system. The implication is clear: WebRTC will make voice and video call enabled web pages pervasive and, in time, ubiquitous. No plug-ins to download and install that may not be compatible with all the browsers you use, on the desktop or on your mobile devices, and so no mess, no fuss.

But WebRTC goes beyond VoIP and video conferencing, at least in the narrow sense we currently define those applications. Imagine clicking on a button on, say, a product page on Amazon and having a video window pops up in which a staffer shows you the gadget you thinking about buying. This is no pre-recorded video, or a set of static, Photoshopped snaps, as you’d get today, but a real person with real kit showing it in real time - and doing so interactively showing you the parts you ask to be shown.

Seeing a real face and hearing a real voice, you can make a better judgement of an eBay seller’s hyperbole than you can with an email, or with the kind of text chat session you are often invited into by major sellers’ websites today. Online buying habits may change. If a seller won’t speak to you, or refuses to deal with your enquiry courteously, you may choose to take your custom elsewhere, just as you might once have done in a high street shop.

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