WebRTC is quietly — but unmistakably — gaining steam

Widespread uptake of WebRTC has languished partly because some the tech industry have failed to coalesce behind a technical standard. But the technology appears to have taken a major step forward with last month’s publication of a draft of Object Real-Time Communications (ORTC), a technology backed by Microsoft. While ORTC had been considered a rival technology, the specification “extends WebRTC 1.0 with new functionality to create a WebRTC 1.1 API with exceptional flexibility and no loss of compatibility.” So it appears the technologies will be integrated in the next version of WebRTC, and Microsoft – which had been a holdout because WebRTC-based services could compete with Skype – has signaled its willingness to cooperate.

Video conferencing and beyond

As I wrote in a GigaOm Research Report a few months ago, WebRTC launched in May 2011 and continues to evolve from an experimental technology to a legitimate – if not yet mature – platform with mass-market potential. It is designed as a platform for real-time voice, video and data communications across smartphones, tablets and PCs without requiring external plugins. And although it is used primarily for browser-to-browser communications, it is well positioned to play an important role in M2M communications as the era of the internet of things matures.

Perhaps the most notable consumer use of WebRTC in the North America thus far is in Amazon’s Mayday button, which launches a video chat customer service session on the company’s Kindle tablets and the Fire smartphone. And WebRTC is increasingly making its way into other services: The popular messaging app Snapchat recently added a video component that users can launch with a single click to transmit video for as long as the icon is held down. American Express earlier this year added a WebRTC-powered live video chat feature to its iPad app, helping to spark a reported 190,000 downloads within a week. And Mozilla recently launched a service that enables Firefox Beta users to make video calls to each other using WebRTC.

And while many of the new offerings powered by WebRTC center on video, the technology can be used in a wide variety of scenarios beyond familiar video-conferencing examples, as analyst Dean Bubley noted a few weeks ago. WebRTC is being used both within browsers and within apps; it can add any combination of voice, video and data; it can work on iOS devices despite Apple’s lack of support; and it is being used for both consumer and enterprise offerings.

Major hurdles still exist

WebRTC promises to enable online communications offerings that are easy for consumers to use immediately across devices without the need for configuration while decreasing costs and licensing headaches for developers. Despite its recent progress, though, the technology still faces major hurdles: Standard protocols have yet to be finalized, Apple has yet to signal any intent to support WebRTC in its Safari browser, and the technology still lacks the technical muscle and reliability that the enterprise will require before widespread adoption can occur.

Those challenges help explain why the vast majority of businesses have yet to embrace WebRTC. A Namertes Research survey of roughly 200 IT decision-makers earlier this year found that a mere 6.8 percent of respondents said their company had plans to deploy WebRTC this year or in 2015; a whopping 69 percent reported their company had no plans for the technology whatsoever. But savvy consumer-facing businesses are finally adding WebRTC-based components to their apps and services, and concerns regarding reliability and QoS will surely be addressed as the technology matures. Meanwhile, increasing adoption is likely to force Apple to support WebRTC in Safari in the relatively near future. WebRTC has failed to live up to a tremendous amount of hype since its launch more than two years ago, but its recent momentum is unmistakable.