Making WebRTC Work for Enterprise Communication and Collaboration
WebRTC has a reputation problem in enterprise communication and collaboration.
The game-changing potential of embedding real-time communications into web browsers is something we’ve been hearing about for years, but to date the implementations for enterprise businesses have been half-baked. The greatest successes I’ve seen is in the consumer, social realm – Facebook Messenger’s calling and video chat features. Facebook VP of Messaging Products David Marcus declared one of his product development goals was the disappearance of the phone number.
He has a point: Most of us would prefer the option to call someone with a click of a mouse or a tap on a smartphone because we don’t have to think about a phone number. On Facebook Messenger, they are reporting 400 million voice and video calls a month*, making them the largest user of WebRTC technology. We see the same pattern in the enterprise with collaboration apps, where calling is accomplished via user ID to user ID rather than phone number to phone number.
This peer-to-peer architecture “cuts out the middleman,” bypassing the phone system or unified communications cloud platform. This might sound like a good idea, but remember, it is bypassing the critical network infrastructure that provides reliability, quality, and enterprise features. WebRTC applications should incorporate everything we have learned about delivering high-quality and reliable voice and video in enterprise environments if they want to see adoption in the enterprise environment.
The Both/And Option
At the risk of being pedantic, let me review what WebRTC is. And what it is not.
Embedding real-time communications in the browser is a big deal, particularly for consumer applications where you don’t want to force the user to download plug-ins. The same goes for enterprises where users are blocked from downloading unauthorized apps so IT can keep the number of applications they maintain under control and from a security perspective, users are not introducing apps that could potentially wreak havoc across the corporate network.
But take note, WebRTC itself is a user interface technology and only a user interface technology. It doesn’t provide guarantees for call reliability and quality, mix streams for conference calls and online meetings, nor record calls or meetings in the cloud. None of these are trivial capabilities; it means routing calls over paths optimized for multimedia data (vs. random paths used to download animated GIFs), and hosting highly resilient systems to record and archive calls in the cloud.
To get the most out of WebRTC, you want to connect it to backend infrastructure. You ought to be able to place a WebRTC call and reach someone on their cell phone, without requiring that they have an app installed to receive the call. Hell, you ought to be able to call a number in Bangladesh that gets answered on a rotary phone from the 1950s.
Why WebRTC Matters
To illustrate for you why it matters, one of the more interesting applications of WebRTC that I have seen is Clover Professional Network, a recruiting firm for tech experts and developers. With WebRTC they can easily communicate with candidates using IM, voice and video. When they find a candidate they’re interested in, they send a calendar invite and coordinate an interview or chat in real time right through the platform. This is a classic example of how WebRTC enables seamless and instantaneous communications without having to dial a number.
What it Takes
Making WebRTC function as part of a broader business communications network is not without its challenges. We’ve had to push on vendors who make Session Border Controllers devices to ensure sure they recognize WebRTC calls play their part to ensure their quality. Enabling users who may be on different browsers to communicate with each other and still support all WebRTC capabilities is still a concern (although a narrowing one).
The effort is worthwhile because the payoff is a much more integrated experience.
The desk phone will live on, although people will realize a browser and headset is all they need. Even the laggard adopters will see the value of letting the computer dial for them.
Peer-to-peer WebRTC will remain popular with collaboration and social software developers looking for a quick-and-dirty way of “calling” within their apps without the need of a complete phone system.
There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand its limits.
By David Lee, Vice President of Platform Products, RingCentral