WebRTC is a Distraction

by Dave Michels

This just in from the WebRTC front: It still sucks.

Next week is Enterprise Connect and I expect, once again, that there will be a WebRTC love-in. There will be some really smart folks explaining its virtues, and some killer solutions that demonstrate how effective and seamless the technology can be.

Don’t be fooled. WebRTC at best is a fantasy that may indeed someday come true, but at worst it’s a dangerous distraction that can waste a ton of money, cost customers, and squander opportunities.

I get the love-in part. Who wouldn’t love WebRTC? It’s free, and I for one love free stuff. Even better, it is free and valuable. Google bought much of the IP and then gifted it to be open.

It’s also logical. I remember the first time I saw the Netscape browser. I can’t recall my initial exact thoughts, but it was probably something like “wow, cool – too bad it’s so limited.” Over the decades, the browser has evolved to become my primary application. It supports sound, HD video, PDFs, and serves as a portal to the world. Why not interactive, real-time communications?

My problem with WebRTC is I’m tired of waiting. Even worse, it’s taken so long that I’m not sure I even need it any more. It’s like a late pizza that arrives after settling for a box of microwaved Hot Pockets.

WebRTC is something that 1) we should stop waiting for and 2) celebrate when it eventually arrives. These are not contradictions, here’s why:

  1. Limited Support. The true power of WebRTC lies in ubiquity. The idea that every browser supports real-time communications is powerful. It means, write once-deploy many. As of today, most browsers do not support WebRTC. Microsoft is working at it, but don’t hold your breath for Apple. Someday this may change – and someday I will celebrate WebRTC. Today it’s a reasonable solution for internal intranets, but then so is deploying apps or plugins.
  2. Mobile is what really matters. I recently got chastised for sending an email instead of a text. We’ve been talking “mobile-first” for sometime now. WebRTC is optimized for the desktop. Mobile devices that leverage WebRTC tech use apps – not browsers. Since the WebRTC mobile SDKs require apps and provide limited support and quality why bother?
  3. Why Bother? WebRTC helped Google legitimize Chrome while simultaneously threatening Skype. Those have largely played out now which possibly explains why Google seems to have lost interest. What is the differentiated value that WebRTC brings moving forward?
  4. WebRTC is Dangerous. It’s an Ikea world built on pre-made SDKs, APIs, and code snippets. The problem is what to do when there’s a problem. Consider Heartbleed – everyone re-used the same code – and everyone had the same problem. It’s very hard to fix something that 1) you don’t understand 2) you don’t control. If you are building a strategic product – consider building it.

I am not convinced WebRTC has a place (today) in communications apps. It does offer a simple means of adding communications to other apps. So if lowest common denominator comms works for your business and the users are known to use a supported browser – go for it.

The other options are to make yourself comfortable and enjoy the wait for the value WebRTC will someday deliver, OR license/embed (or create) real-time technologies that work today.