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With WebRTC, real-time communications come to the browser

Chris Minnick and Ed Tittel | June 6, 2013
The WebRTC standard aims to make peer-to-peer communication over the Web as easy as picking up a phone. Here's what developers need to know about WebRTC, including how to set it up and what limitations the protocol currently faces.

Everyone has had the experience of trying to join a Web conference, only to realize that you must first download some plug-in, upgrade Java or Flash, or install another application. If you've ever had to explain to a customer how or why she need to download and install a plug-in or application to meet with you online, youve probably also had the experience of throwing up your hands and saying, "You know what? I'll just call you."

Live audio and video streams and live conferencing over the Web are changing business and personal communications, but theyre often deemed too complicated or unreliable for many end users. Certainly, creating a real-time communications (RTC) application is certainly too complicated for the average Web developer.

All of this is changing now, thanks to Web Real-Time Communications ( WebRTC), an industry standard for building peer-to-peer communications right into Web applications.

Today, Real-Time Communications Mostly Means 'Call Me'
Until WebRTC came along, real-time communications required a plugin or a native app. This required users to download, install, upgrade, launch, configure or troubleshoot numerous issues to get themselves from "I need to do this" to "I've done it."

You can currently use several applications for real-time communication, including Skype, Facetime, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, iChat, GotoMeeting and join.me. This doesn't include the VOIP phones sitting on your physical desks or all the RTC apps on your smartphones and tablets, either. Undoubtedly, there are several other RTC apps on your computers that you've downloaded and used only once, or that were downloaded in the form of Flash or Java applications when you visited various business Websites and used their live chat features.

In short, real-time communication is all over the Web today, both literally and figuratively.

You can use some RTC clients to communicate with other people using different RTC programs; for example, iChat talks to Yahoo Messenger. For the most part, though, each of these programs is designed to work best, or only with, other computers running the same software or plugin.

The plain old telephone service (POTS), on the other hand, is familiar, universal and simple. It's no wonder that so many people and businesses are still unable to completely dump the horrible sound quality and expense of analog telephones and phone service over copper wires. You need that phone to call into a Web meeting when the audio portion of the call doesn't work. You may also have a smartphone that's almost always connected to a Wi-Fi network-yet you still pay for a wireless plan in addition to high-speed Internet and phone service.

WebRTC Offers Browser-Agnostic Solution
Contrast this current state of affairs with a vision of what's possible with WebRTC. Anyone with a Web browser and a microphone can make calls to anyone else with a Web browser and a microphone. If one or both parties has some sort of video camera, the call can also involve video.

 

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