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Does Skype for Web mean WebRTC is ready for prime time?

Mary Branscombe | Nov. 19, 2014
Attitudes to standards in web browsers will dictate what you'll be able to do on your device.

Aboba called building real-time features into browsers "a complex and risky project even for us."

WebRTC has also been affected by the agendas of the many companies involved in developing the standard -- including Apple, Cisco and Qualcomm, as well as browser makers such as Microsoft, Mozilla and Google, which proposed its own VP8 codec instead of H.264. Video calls between different browsers won't work unless both use the same format for the video, but discussions on which video codec browsers will have to support in WebRTC dragged on for many months, with arguments over the licensing and royalties involved. Refusing to support VP8 was Apple's only real contribution to the discussion, and last year Cisco offered an open source implementation of H.264 to break the deadlock.

It's also because WebRTC is being rewritten to include technology from ORTC. This is an alternative proposal for real-time communications in the browser, based on JavaScript objects that are easier for developers to work with than the protocol originally proposed for WebRTC, but that would still be compatible with it. That protocol was good for being able to connect to older VoIP and video systems but it meant common tasks like switching from voice to video or turning on stereo audio were much more complicated for developers.

Both Google and Microsoft were involved with developing ORTC and originally the plan was for version 1.1 of WebRTC to incorporate the new ideas. It's the ORTC version of WebRTC that the Internet Explorer team is working on. But now many ORTC ideas are going straight into WebRTC 1.0. That's slowed down finalizing the standard but will improve compatibility.

Unlike other standards such as Pointer Events that Microsoft has backed, that hasn't been a matter of Microsoft convincing Google to change its mind. The designers of ORTC needed to explain how it would work, said Aboba, "but we didn't have a problem convincing people it should be adopted."

Even so, WebRTC is some way from being a mature technology. Many of the pieces aren't new, but they haven't been put together in a single system before.

And then there's the question of matching the experience we expect today from services like Skype.

One big challenge he identifies for WebRTC on mobile devices is battery life. "If you're not using hardware acceleration [to process audio and video efficiently] your battery will run down very quickly." That might mean you'll need a new device to get the most from WebRTC. "Devices that support Lync and Skype in accelerated mode are more likely to support this. With other vendors that have not supported hardware acceleration before, you would have to get new hardware. Apple and Microsoft have supported this for a while."


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