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How WebRTC is Impacting the UC Landscape - Interview with Unify

Posted by Kevin Gulley

Feb 17, 2015

Ready?  Here comes the basic premise for all WebRTC / Unified Communications articles written in the last 3 years.”We’ve been hearing about the promise of WebRTC for a long time now and how it will improve unified communications and ease the process of collaboration for all of us, but it is not yet ready for primetime.”

It has certainly a topic of interest around here (see this and that post).  We have been watching as the standards slowly progress and hoping that leading UC providers would step up and start bringing solutions to market.  That is why we are so pleased to see the new WebRTC-based product from Unify, called Circuit.  To learn more about how this product came to be, where things stand with WebRTC, challenges Unify has faced in development and the benefits customers are experiencing, I spoke with Goncalo Marais, Director of Product Management for Circuit, and Andy Hutton, the Head of Standardization at Unify. WebRTC Changing Unified Communications

After a very humourous password disaster (we spent 5 minutes wondering why we couldn’t get into the application before we realized it was an ‘exclamation point’ and not a ‘one’), we conducted the interview in Circuit.  We logged in with a simple UN and PW (no downloads) and met in a web application featuring a clean interface, live video streams of all participants, solid call quality, screen sharing and chat capabilities.  A couple of points of clarification:  First, there were certainly times when we experienced a bit of jitter on the call, which to a certain extent is to be expected when relying so heavily on the public internet (Related: Guaranteed Availability and Voice Quality over the Public Internet?); second, when I say no downloads, that was only true if you already had Google Chrome installed.  Why Chrome?  That brings us to our next topic.

Standards for WebRTC Getting There...Slowly

Andy Hutton, who has been involved in the W3 WebRTC working group  effort from the very beginning, brought a lot of insight into where things stand with WebRTC standards.  “Google started this project several years ago with the goal of enabling rich, high quality RTC applications for browsers and mobile platforms and allowing them to communicate via a common set of protocols,” explained Hutton. There has been a lot of progress made to date, with significant input from major tech players (you name it, they are participating) and Mozilla and Opera joining Chrome as browsers already supporting the protocol. “That doesn’t mean the standard is there - version 1.0 isn’t even complete.  We are probably another 6 to 9 months away from having a stable draft that will move towards being an an accepted standard,” according to Hutton.

He explained that Microsoft, while involved and mostly supportive from the very beginning, was sidetracked for around 6 months after the Skype acquisition as they tried to figure out things from a legal perspective.  They decided to come back to the table, but they are not going to support WebRTC 1.0 (insert obligatory “Microsoft never supports any standards” joke here), instead supporting a version called oRTC or Object RTC.  That organization’s mission is to enable rich, high quality, RTC applications to be developed in mobile endpoints and servers via native toolkits, simple Javascript APIs and HTML5. It is also a mandate that Object RTC be compatible with WebRTC.  So it an object oriented approach that is committed to playing nice with WebRTC.  According to Hutton, “There is technical merit to many of the aspects of oRTC. Components of what they are doing will likely be pulled into the WebRTC standard and vice versa.”

Challenges UC Developers Face When Developing WebRTC Apps

With a technology this immature, I wanted to get an idea of the challenges that Unify faced in developing Circuit. According to Morais, the difficulty of taking on a tech this young is not just the on the browser and standards side of things, but also with bugs.  “You are not only working to develop a terrific application from a UI, functionality and user experience point of view, but you are constantly needing to track down what is causing bugs because it may not be your code...it could be at the browser layer or the standards layer.  It certainly keeps you on your toes.”

Additional challenges, at least in the short-term, include the inability for companies to upgrade browsers to a modern version that supports WebRTC and keep them updated.  Many companies are stuck on a particular version of a browser as a corporate standard (from my experience, this is often due to an internally developed application that was customized based on an older version of IE), and this puts them in a difficult position when it comes to WebRTC.  “We’ve tried Circuit out with over 40 companies now,” explained Morais, “and most businesses are perfectly willing to allow employees to install and utilize Chrome.  There are some that are not quite ready to make that move yet, but we expect that challenge to dissipate over time.”  Connectivity issues due to relying on the public Internet will be apparent in the short-term, but Hutton says this will continue to improve over time.  

Morais sees the migration towards WebRTC continuing to accelerate.  “Working on an open standard is an opportunity for businesses to leave behind the ‘closed, protect my IP at all costs’ mindset and evolve to focus on better servicing customers.  WebRTC will extend the reach of existing apps and solve deployment problems and the best applications will continue to rise to the top.”

WebRTC Offers Benefits, Opportunities to Businesses and Employees

WebRTC offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to interacting with customers, prospects and employees.  As an example, imagine Amazon offering a button you can click to get a CSR to join you in your session, complete with video, audio, chat and screen sharing.  This is game changing stuff.  “For businesses, WebRTC expedites the way that businesses interact with their stakeholders,” said Morais. “With no plugins to download, install and keep current, hassle of offering and joining conferences goes away.”  

While users will need to be sure they have recent hardware and the current browser, WebRTC should provide users with a meaningful improvement in ease of use.  In the best case scenarios, the applications will be seamless and effectively invisible.  While it seems we still need to wait a bit longer to see standards stabilize and application developers catch up, it is great to see companies like Unify pushing the envelope with WebRTC.  To see WebRTC Unified Communications in action, sign up for a free 60 day trial of Circuit here.

Topics: Voice, video, cloud, Business Case, WebRTC, Industry News, UCaaS

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