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WebRTC: The Web Browser gets disruptive?

WebRTC: The Web Browser gets disruptive? Mike Vitale
Last week's Google I/O 2012 conference provided plenty to talk about in the Web and mobile universe.  One of the conference sessions, WebRTC: Real-time Audio/Video and P2P in HTML5, really caught my attention because of its potential to disrupt communications technology.  If you're unfamiliar with WebRTC, or Web Real-Time Communications, the project's website sums it up this way:
WebRTC is a free, open project that enables web browsers with Real-Time Communications (RTC) capabilities via simple Javascript APIs. The WebRTC components have been optimized to best serve this purpose.

Our mission: To enable rich, high quality, RTC applications to be developed in the browser via simple Javascript APIs and HTML5.

In plain English, the completely open source technology allows programmers to build powerful, browser-based, audio and video chat applications using only Javascript - no plugins required.  If you're a user of Google+ Hangouts, then you've already seen some of the possibilities.  The W3C draft isn't complete, but the new standard is supported by (almost) every major browser maker including Google, Mozilla, Microsoft and Opera.  Unsurprisingly, Apple hasn't thrown their weight behind the initiative.

The standard has been discussed for some time, but the I/O session, delivered by Google's WebRTC Tech Lead, Justin Uberti, featured several noteworthy milestones and demonstrations:

  • Using Javascript, the browser is able to access device webcams and microphones.

  • Canvas and WebGL can be used to create powerful video effects and face detection apps.

  • The browser can make video calls to mobile apps that use RTC.

  • Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers will support RTC by the end of 2012.

  • Internet Explorer to support RTC via Chrome Frame.

  • RTC uses license free codecs for video (VP8) and audio (G.711 and iSAC).

  • During the Q&A session, Mr. Uberti confirmed that screen-sharing will be available in a future release.

Where do I sign up?  Video applications that currently require significant programming knowledge can now be built by someone with much less coding skills.  The ease of  use alone will pique the interest of thousands of web developers. Advanced coders need not worry as a native C++ API exists.

It feels like a long time since I've been excited to develop a browser-based application, but Google is doing  just that.   The past few years were dominated by Android and iOS apps.  The wide adoption of WebRTC within all major browsers could turn that around.  It blurs the line between browser and native apps with the added benefit of being a Web standard.

From a business perspective, I think Google realizes the benefits here.  This technology is disruptive to the Web conferencing space and has the bonus effect of pushing WebM usage (VP8 is the video codec within that container format).  I believe it will take a sea change to get video content creators to stop using the ubiquitous H.264 codec, but WebRTC could be the catalyst for a migration to WebM/VP8.

There are a number of concerns I still have about the technology, including peer-to-peer reliability and the speed in which browser makers will actually include RTC support.  Microsoft, in particular, is worrisome because they are notoriously slow at forcing upgrades from older versions of Internet Explorer and getting enterprise users to install Chrome Frame can be a stretch.  However, last week several media outlets noticed recent Microsoft job postings that hint at Skype integrating WebRTC into a future release.  Now it gets interesting...

If you want to see some of the technology in action, I recommend downloading Google Chrome Canary.  Canary is Google's "at-your-own-risk" version of Chrome that has all the latest and greatest Dev features enabled.  As Google notes, the browser is designed for developers, so no complaining if it crashes!  From there, visit the demo section of the WebRTC project site.

Mike has been with TalkPoint since its inception and brings over 12 years of experience in webcasting technology, specifically in production and technology service, to the company. Prior to TalkPoint, Mike directed production services at Williams...

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