24 October 2012—Two years ago, a handful of the world’s largest technology companies met at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., campus to devise a new peer-to-peer approach to communications. Participants at the October meeting, including representatives from Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Skype, kicked off an effort known as WebRTC to create open standards for real-time video, audio, and data communication via an Internet browser.
The goal of the new standards is to make it easy for developers with little to no knowledge of telephony protocols to add communications capabilities to anything with an Internet connection. Though the standards are still months away from being finalized, ordinary users will be able to start kicking the tires on the new technology—albeit with some restrictions—in November, when Google releases the next version of the Chrome browser, and in January, using the new Firefox browser.
Both Chrome and Firefox will allow developers to capture media from the camera and microphone on a gadget and then send it to a browser on another machine. This will dramatically simplify the development of communications apps, making it possible to re-create the functionality of Skype, Google Chat, or Apple’s FaceTime without requiring users to download additional code. The final version of the standard will also include specifications for a data channel, allowing everything from simultaneous screen sharing to the exchange of sensor data.
“When most people think about WebRTC, they think about being able to make calls and video chat in the browser, but it’s really more fundamental than that,” says Jose de Castro, the chief technology officer of Voxeo Labs, a research incubator of the voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) company Voxeo, which is helping to edit the standard. By combining WebRTC with other technologies, like facial recognition and 2-D or 3-D graphics, developers will be able to build a variety of products, including baby monitors, security systems, and interactive games, he says. One early example, built by Spacegoo, a French game developer, is an online chess game that shows a video image of your opponent at the other end of a chessboard.
The idea of using a browser for communication has been around a long time, but it received a critical boost in June 2011, when Google released a proposed WebRTC framework under an open-source BSD license. For the first time, all the components necessary to build a complete, high-quality communications system in the browser were available for free. The framework included voice and video codecs unencumbered by royalties, as well as acoustic echo cancellation, automatic gain control, noise reduction, and noise suppression. Many of the components came from Google’s US $68 million acquisition of Global IP Solutions, a supplier of real-time voice- and video-processing software for IP networks and the technology provider behind Skype’s original audio codec.
While Google’s move cleared the way for new standards, key aspects of Google’s proposal continue to be debated in working groups at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). In particular, members disagree on whether Google’s royalty-free VP8 video codec should be a mandatory component. Microsoft, which controls at least 33 percent of the browser market, according to StatCounter, has argued against any mandatory-to-implement codecs in general and says it prefers H.264, which requires royalties, over VP8. Microsoft also raised hackles by proposing its own alternative to WebRTC in August, when working groups at both the W3C and IETF were nearing the end of the project.
Matthew Kaufman, the principal architect for Microsoft-Skype on WebRTC, says Microsoft’s version of the standard gives developers more control, but he has had a tough time countering the argument that the existing proposal is easier to use. In a recent poll, members of the W3C working group voted by a wide margin against adopting Microsoft’s approach.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear when Microsoft will begin to include WebRTC in Internet Explorer. Kaufman says he is unable to discuss which features will be available or when they might ship. Opera, which has participated in working group discussions, has also not announced when it will ship WebRTC, and Apple has not participated in the standards groups since the initial meetings.
That leaves Google and Mozilla with the strongest commitment to immediately implement the standard. Brendan Eich, CTO of the Mozilla Corp., says that WebRTC would be shipped in Firefox 18, though users will need to change their settings to turn it on. In contrast, Google is planning to ship WebRTC as the default option in Chrome 23, which is tentatively scheduled for release on 6 November.
In these early days, it’s possible that not even Chrome and Firefox will be able to fully interoperate, though Eich says the teams are working hard to ensure their implementations are compatible. Also, users who are behind firewalls may have difficulty connecting with one another due to issues with network address translation that the Chrome team hopes to resolve in Chrome 24, which should be released toward the end of December.
Once the kinks are worked out, however, users will be able to make voice and video calls not only from their PC browsers but also from their mobile phones. This is likely to have major implications for the carriers, who are already struggling with how to respond to so-called over-the-top applications that offer voice and messaging services using Internet protocols.
Daniel Burnett, coauthor of the book WebRTC: APIs and RTCWEB Protocols of the HTML5 Real-Time Web, says the availability of WebRTC combined with the rollout of voice over LTE—the 4G wireless flavor that treats voice calls just like any other data—could hasten the decline of traditional telephony over the public switched telephone network. “It’s possible to conceive that in the future, all voice and video communications will be browser communications running over the Internet,” Burnett says.
About the Author
Elise Ackerman has chronicled the doings of Silicon Valley’s Internet elite for the San Jose Mercury News, Forbes.com, and, of course, IEEE Spectrum. In our June 2011 special report on the future of the social Web, along with Erico Guizzo, she reported on the five technologies that will shape the Web.