opinion


WebRTC isn’t the only game in town

mobile devices

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this article Raj Sen Sharma, Director of Product Management at mobile collaboration specialist Moxtra looks at the prospects for WebRTC as the default technology for integrating real-time communications into apps.

WebRTC is being hailed in many camps as the turn-key technology enabling developers to incorporate real-time digital communications seamlessly into apps.  This article examines the current status of this open standard and attempts to peel away some of the hype to determine where it has evolved to today and what challenges still remain.  It will also explore whether WebRTC should be considered the default standard for developers looking to add real time communications into their app or whether other viable platforms or technologies exist.

Industry analyst, Disruptive Analysis, estimates that the number of smartphones and other WebRTC- capable devices will increase from 3 billion today to 6.5 billion by 2019.  So what makes WebRTC such a compelling prospect?  Let’s start with a broad definition of what is meant by WebRTC in terms that business people, not just developers, can understand.  WebRTC stands for Web Real Time Communication; you might think of it as where VoIP (voice and video) meets the web.  It’s an open standard API promoted by Google which enables the real time integration of voice, video and messaging communications into browsers and mobile apps, eliminating the need for a separate app like Skype or any type of third party plugin.

The first thing to understand about WebRTC is that it’s open source and free, which has the advantage of lowering entry barriers and enabling developers of apps such as OTT consumer apps where there is a lower income per user model to take advantage of its capabilities.   What’s more it provides a JavaScript API to mask all of the complexities of developing VoIP capabilities that would otherwise require many man-months and specialist skillsets to develop.  It also means that the vast pool of Javascript and HTML developers can now add real time communications capabilities into an app quickly and easily without needing to worry about issues like interoperability, security patches or upgrades – or at least that’s the theory…

From the end user point of view the picture is equally rosy.  WebRTC makes the addition of real time communications into mobile apps completely viable.  So think, for example, of a customer service application or a digital storefront where customer representatives will now be able to interact directly with the consumer from within the browser itself, without needing to open a separate interface, making for a much enhanced customer service experience.

When is a standard not a standard?

There are however, substantial limitations which prevent WebRTC from becoming the default standard for developers. The main issue concerns browser interoperability: WebRTC is currently only supported by Chrome and Firefox.  Notably, two of the big players in the market, Apple and Microsoft, don’t support WebRTC in their browser platforms, either for desktop or mobile.  The absence of these two major players which represent as much as 45% of the mobile operating system market (according to the latest comScore reports) means that it cannot be classed as a genuine industry standard without full, cross-browser support.

Another challenge which exists is that, as with many open standards, the implementation by different browsers is inconsistent, undermining the fundamental principle of interoperability.  In addition to limited browser support, another key limitation for WebRTC in the enterprise exists: it doesn’t work behind proxy servers.  So if you are trying to run a video conferencing service behind a firewall you will encounter difficulties.    Equally, quality of service can be compromised by the fact that it doesn’t optimise the use of available processing power, leading to degradation of voice and video quality and lost connections.   In a mobile situation where a user is moving between high and low bandwidth environments WebRTC is unable to adjust seamlessly to the available capacity, impacting negatively on user experience.

Communication or Collaboration?

Ultimately determining whether WebRTC is the best tool for the job depends on the nature of the app and the intended target audience.  If mobile communication is your aim and you are looking to facilitate a two way customer service conversation then it may well fit the bill nicely.  If, however, you are seeking a more collaborative experience requiring multiple users in an enterprise environment where security, reliability, support and quality of service are of primary concern, then alternative purpose-built mobile collaboration platforms from companies like Moxtra may be better suited to the task.

True collaboration requires more than just web chat – it involves content sharing and the need to support full desktop sharing or white-boarding.  Collaboration requires multiple users and a seamless, inclusive, rich experience for all, regardless of device type, browser or operating system.  WebRTC is a useful standard for communications but it is still a relatively simple tool when it comes to collaboration and would require a significant effort to make it work optimally in such an environment.  It works adequately in a synchronous communications mode i.e. everyone in the same time frame, but lacks the ability to record, store and playback voice or video content for users in different time zones for example.

Another potential limitation is the fact that it is primarily designed to function as a peer to peer communication tool for individuals.  The infrastructure required to make it scale for multi-party conversations shifts the complexity to the users. This means it is less suited for collaborative environments in the enterprise, or for use in areas such as e-learning where multiple students might want to share content or communicate in real time.

Finely tuned engine or useful tool?

WebRTC is just a building block or component rather than a carefully honed, finely-tuned engine and requires considerable time and effort to deploy, particularly in an enterprise environment.    It may well fit the bill if your goal is to add real time communications to a desktop peer-to-peer app but as soon as you move to a mobile platform or want to scale, then it becomes less of a clear cut choice.  Another critical factor in an enterprise environment is security and there are growing concerns about the potential for denial of service attacks or fraud via the browser interface.  In an enterprise environment there is also the matter of legacy systems that require seamless integration to consider.  This is an environment where security, richness of experience, good support; reliability and quality of experience are of paramount concern.

So what will be the future of WebRTC?  It depends to a large degree on how it manages to garner support from other players such as Apple and Microsoft.  It may become a useful component for introducing communications, but only time will tell whether it will become the full ‘go to’ solution for all collaboration needs.   Today it is more of a utility or tool that offers useful functionality in certain situations, but is still lacking in the realm of true mobile collaboration.  Where a business is seeking an enterprise class, turnkey, out-of-the-box solution which offers quality and reliability of service and support, better options exist today offering everything from APIs to full SDK integration capabilities.

 

rajIn his role as Director of Product of Management at Moxtra, Raj Sen Sharma is in charge of leading moxtra’s platform and product road map.  His responsibilities include overseeing product management, partner integrations, data science and user experience for both the company’s collaboration platform and its stand alone app.  He brings to the role over fifteen years of product management and enterprise software development experience in Silicon Valley. His areas of specialisation include: defining product vision and creating product roadmaps with emphasis on monetisation and product team leadership.

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