WebRTC uncovered: why it's the future of online communications

13th Mar 2013 | 14:55

WebRTC uncovered: why it's the future of online communications

Move over Skype and FaceTime

The web has revolutionised communication, and WebRTC promises to take the revolution a step further. The free, open-source project enables compliant web browsers to communicate in real-time using simple JavaScript APIs.

The project's mission: "To enable rich, high quality, real-time communication applications to be developed in the browser via simple JavaScript APIs and HTML5." Think Skype or FaceTime, built into the browser—and far more once developers start tinkering.

Distinguished Engineer at Avaya, Inc. Alan Johnston co-wrote a comprehensive book on the technology, and he's truly excited about its potential: "WebRTC is about unleashing the power of real-time communication to any web developer or application. Before WebRTC, to add real-time communication, a developer needed to know protocols and select stacks, often requiring licensing.

Now, WebRTC browsers such as Chrome and Firefox have all this built in, and developers can utilise them with a few simple API calls in their JavaScript." Net benefits, says Johnston, will be lower development costs, richer interaction on websites, and potentially happier end users.

Online chat

The plug-in free future

A big draw with WebRTC is the manner in which it's baked into browsers. Mobile platforms such as iOS started the drift away from plug-ins, but a future free from them has long been the goal of many web standards advocates.

"Removing boundaries for people to use these technologies is important to ensure uptake, and it alleviates security and privacy fears that come with downloading a third-party plug-in," says Andi Smith, a presentation technical architect at AKQA.

He notes how widespread adoption of WebRTC would eliminate commonplace scenarios where you plan a conference call, only to discover on the day that an attendee lacks the right plug-in or app. "Along with causing fragmentation and being expensive to develop, plug-ins are a major vector for malware," adds Johnston, further cementing why the web would be best rid of them.

Usability, though, is perhaps the most important factor in WebRTC. In providing developers with a relatively simple means of dealing with complex technology, innovation can flourish through utilising WebRTC for new ideas, rather than spending time recreating foundations.

"The technology behind RTCPeerConnection—the WebRTC API for audio and video communication—blows me away. This is an amazing engineering achievement, and it shields developers from a multitude of complex tasks that are really hard to do well but are crucial to real-time communication," says Google Developer Advocate Sam Dutton.

He elaborates: "To mention a few: echo cancellation, packet loss concealment, bandwidth adaptivity, automatic gain control, noise reduction and suppression, image 'cleaning' and the beautifully named 'dynamic jitter buffering', which maintains reserves of data to avoid video hiccups!"

A world beyond Skype

On watching a recent WebRTC demo (below), it's not hard to see how it could rapidly take over from the likes of Skype.

However, beyond such obvious applications, enterprising developers could do far more, according to those already immersed in the technology. "WebRTC has the potential to make the web a more interactive place," argues Smith, who suggests video-based customer service could be directly integrated into websites.

He also reckons we could see web-cams tracking head movement to perform gestures or change font sizes, depending on distance. "Accessibility is definitely an exciting area of WebRTC," agrees Johnston. "We usually think of WebRTC as enabling communication between users on browsers, but it will likely also be used to generate new user interfaces for websites, besides the keyboard, assisting those with disabilities."

Dutton adds that "disruptive technologies transform our lives in unpredictable ways," too, noting that no-one would have predicted Ajax would lead to Google Maps. By way of example, he says Google's I/O developer conference saw Tethr unveiled, a framework for disaster communications that can run off a car battery and fit in a small briefcase: "It uses an OpenBTS mobile cell to enable communications between feature phones and computers via WebRTC. It's telephone communication without a carrier."

Such usage beyond typical video chat and telephony are what most excite Dutton about WebRTC: "It can benefit content creators, enabling them to build tools for gaming, video production, news gathering, and all sorts of things people just haven't imagined yet."

And he believes end users should be able to expect seamless communication in this WebRTC-enabled future, recalling WebRTC manager Serge Lachapelle's comment that "human communication should be as natural in web apps as entering text in a text input field".

Twinsee is a video call service for Android that's based on WebRTC

I'm not speaking to you

For all these lofty goals to be achieved, interoperability is a must. WebRTC is in its infancy, and there are many issues to deal with. Johnston says standardising codecs is already causing arguments.

Although audio will use Opus and G.711, which have strong industry support, there's a video face-off brewing—open-source advocates prefer VP8, but H.264 already enjoys widespread deployment in environments and devices. "A failure to agree could cause interoperability issues, and although standards bodies are working on this, it's a difficult problem to solve," explains Johnston.

Smith also foresees problems with vendors that already have successful peer-to-peer video solutions: "Apple's been very quiet on the subject and might be reluctant to include WebRTC on iOS, because it can be a direct competitor to FaceTime and also flies in the face of Apple's app culture. Similarly, Microsoft might have reservations, due to acquiring Skype."

Smith notes that Microsoft, at least, has shown some interest, but support would be unlikely to exist until Internet Explorer 11, and so it will be "some time before we can expect everyone's browser to support WebRTC". Still, WebRTC nonetheless shows promise, and its vision of the future already exists in the present, to some extent, through support in the latest builds of Firefox and Chrome.

"In 2013, it will become available in some mobile operating systems, too," says Johnston. "And so although I think it will be quite a while before all browsers and operating systems support WebRTC, a majority will support it in the near future."

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