The World of WebRTC

Here’s a way to let the imagination run wild: Think about your stuff that’s equipped with a Web browser.

Now imagine being able to talk to people using that stuff.

That’s the allure of webRTC, where the “RTC” stands for “realtime communications.” It’s a technology that grew out of the World Wide Web Consortium (which goes by “W3C”) to support browser-to-browser applications, like voice and video calling, with no need to download anything or log in. Just click to communicate.

We’ve already seen people talking into their smart watches. We’ll see many more such Dick Tracy maneuvers when Apple’s smartwatch emerges, in March. (Overheard during the recent International CES were whispered demo comments like, “I don’t think your watch heard you.”)

Also at CES, AT&T became the first U.S. carrier to announce an API (application program interface) for its webRTC plans. Why would a developer want to write code for AT&T, rather than for any garden-variety browser that can do it? Presumably to be able to call to the numbers within the public switched-telephone network (PSTN) — in other words, the traditional “black phones” connected to the original wired phone network.

Last week, Mozilla announced “Hello,” a plug-in for its Firefox browser that, once installed, enables webRTCbased calling. Also last week, Canada’s ECN Capital launched an online investment program for private markets based on webRTC.

At The Cable Show last year, Comcast showed a way to “live stream” video from wherever you are to other Xfinity customers. You’re at the wedding, but Grandma couldn’t go, so you hold up your phone and stream it to her big screen. They called it “Share.” It, too, is anchored in webRTC.

Use cases show up everywhere: You’re browsing places on Airbnb. The host happens to be home and amenable to “showing you around,” live, with video. You’re on a customercare call at your desk. You need to leave. Switch the call to your phone, tablet or watch — that’s webRTC.

As of now, there’s no straight line between webRTC and the Internet of Things — right now, the IOT is a sensor story. But the browser can’t be far behind. And when that happens, so opens a whole new way to call people, with your voice or your whole face, from any device you choose.

So far, I can’t quite imagine taking a call from the fridge. But years ago, when digital was just starting, I used to say that anything that helps people to communicate better is a winner. At the time, I used the example of being able to “talk” with my nieces about a particular live TV show — even though they live far away.

This is that. And like everything else based on IP (Internet protocol), webRTC is coming. Whether you choose to use it is up to you.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis