IT has been possible for a while to use a web browser on a computer or mobile device for a video chat, but this has required downloading a plug-in with additional software. For some people that is too bothersome or tricky to install, and others have worried about introducing unfamiliar software to their devices. Now a new standard makes it possible to make video calls through a web browser without any shenanigans.
Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) is an open protocol that enables web browsers quickly to set-up audio and video connections between two or more computers without the addition of new software or running a separate program, such as Skype or FaceTime. Users simply click on a link from a website or an e-mail invitation, and WebRTC opens up an area inside their web browser for the audio-video session to begin.
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WebRTC is an open-source project that began with a group of companies, including Cisco, Ericsson, Google and Mozilla. Much of the software that it uses comes from Global IP Solutions (GIPS), a specialist in real-time voice and video programs. Google bought GIPS in 2010 and made its technology freely available. Cisco followed suit by making its signalling software, used by many communications devices, freely available as well.
Although the final WebRTC technical standards are still being worked on, it has not stopped firms from rushing to adopt the technology. Customer service is one area where it is already taking off, particularly among banks and insurance companies. A pop-up message will invite someone browsing a firm’s website to click for a video chat with a sales agent or a customer-service representative. Connections are made over industry-standard encrypted links and can be set so that one party does not see the other if required. Amazon also uses WebRTC on its Kindle Fire HDX in the form of a “mayday” button which users can click to connect with a helpdesk.
IMO, a Silicon Valley company, has put WebRTC to use in a browser-based video-messaging service. Georges Harik, IMO’s founder (and one of the earliest employees at the search giant Google), says WebRTC is a seamless way to make video calls from a web browser to a mobile device and from browser to browser. The technology can also be used to exchange computer files.
There are corporate uses too. The costs of equipment, software and support have put off some small businesses from investing in video conferencing. And companies are not alone in being discouraged by a lack of compatibility between some existing video-conferencing systems.
At present, though, WebRTC is far from universal. It features only on some browsers, such as the latest versions of Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome. Microsoft has indicated that it might support a future version for its browser, Internet Explorer, and some in the industry believe Apple will eventually do the same for its browser, Safari. Why are these giants dragging their feet? One reason is that the companies are said to be waiting for WebRTC developers to finish arguing over the final specifications. But another reason probably has something to do with the fact that Microsoft owns Skype and Apple runs FaceTime, and neither is needed if everyone can make video calls directly from their browsers.
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