Since the mid-1990s, technologists have been working on integrating workflow with a myriad of different communications channels, including instant messaging, telephony, video conferencing, voicemail, email and text messaging. However, 20 years later, despite some welcome advances, the majority of us are still struggling with parallel and separate communication platforms. Most startling of all, integration with workflow internally - and especially externally - remains the exception rather than the rule.
So why is this the case? The answer has a lot to do with expensive proprietary technologies, which have imposed very high development costs, long deployment horizons and little room for individual customisation for enterprises.
This may be about to change, however, courtesy of APIs and the power of unleashing the browser. Browser-based interoperability opens the door to a device-agnostic approach. Any device running a browser should be able to connect its owner to a collaboration application. On the road, in the office and at home, collaboration platforms need to be universally accessible. Open standards will finally give employees the tools to communicate seamlessly with anyone, anywhere, with the device of their choice. Imagine it being as simple as that.
An example of an API is a bundle of technologies known as WebRTC that promise to bring speed, scale and interoperability to the enterprise. Open sourced by Google in May 2011, WebRTC has become an ambitious industry-wide effort to transform browsers into hubs for real-time communication to connect enterprises globally. The guiding principles of the WebRTC project are that its APIs should be open source, free, standardised and built into web browsers. Increasingly, this is happening; WebRTC is already present in the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox. Sitting in the background, working with applications, WebRTC will gradually allow browsers to become multimedia communication hubs. For individual employees, this means access to video and voice calling, as well as instant messaging - all embedded within the browser they keep open all day long on their desktop.
In an ideal world where millions of employees in many different organisations use an open API-enabled browser, collaboration within organisations and with external stakeholders will become easier, simpler and faster. Yet, if enterprises want collaborations to succeed, they need to listen to their employees and understand their needs and to experiment persistently. Like a start-up, IT departments developing collaboration tools for the enterprise need to launch minimum viable products and watch to see what works and what doesn't. Increasingly, the reduced costs associated with API-based development will allow enterprises to work this way.
I am confident that open, well supported, APIs are the missing link enabling developers to focus on what really matters: building collaborative tools. These could have the potential to relentlessly pull developers and new users into their orbit, unlocking innovation to extend the reach of collaboration inside enterprises and between organisations substantially. WebRTC remains an early stage technology, but among developers, the excitement is palpable.
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