Could Facebook be your next phone company?

Yes, thanks to WebRTC. This open-source project aims to transform the humble Web browser into a full-featured unified communications portal

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Could Facebook or LinkedIn become the nexus for your voice calls and other communications? Not yet, but thanks to a technology known as WebRTC you can't rule out the possibility.

WebRTC -- the initials stand for Real Time Communications -- is an open-source project that aims to transform the ordinary Web browser into a full-featured unified communications portal. With WebRTC, users establish real-time communication sessions from their browser, search, find and point to the servers of people they want to communicate with, and establish connections -- all without needing to know the recipient's phone number or email address.

Standards are now being developed that will enable developers to embed WebRTC communications into any cloud, Web or mobile application. These standards use simple JavaScript APIs and HTML5, both widely understood by developers worldwide.

As a result, WebRTC's potential impact is huge. Carriers could lose control over voice traffic. Unified communications could be available from nearly all desktops and mobile devices. And today's confusing array of phone numbers and email addresses could be replaced by single points of contact.

Thanks to the efforts of working groups within the IETF and W3C, WebRTC is catching on quickly. WebRTC is fully enabled in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera browsers. On the mobile front, it's supported by both Android and iOS. Amazon, AT&T, Facebook and other prominent companies have adopted WebRTC in various ways. WebRTC also offers startups with a chance to innovate and disrupt the established order. Consultant Tsahi Levent-Levi has identified 350 WebRTC vendors worldwide.

Facebook offers a hint of how big WebRTC could be. The company recently added a WebRTC-powered feature that lets Chromebook users initiate video calls without the need to install plugins or go through workarounds. Previously, Chromebook users had to install a plugin before they could initiate Facebook video calls. The only requirement now is that both caller and recipient run WebRTC-compliant browsers. With 1.9 billion active users worldwide, Facebook could spread WebRTC like wildfire.

Other networks are supporting WebRTC too. Telenor, NTT DoCoMo and Comcast are among the global service providers either running WebRTC trials or planning to do so soon. And Talko, a startup led by Ray Ozzie of Lotus Notes fame, now offers "mobile team communications" based on a WebRTC client.

From a technical perspective, WebRTC is an open framework for the Web that enables real-time communications in the browser. WebRTC includes the fundamental building blocks for high-quality communications on the Web, such as the network, audio and video components used in voice and video-chat applications. These components, when implemented in a browser, can be accessed through a JavaScript API, enabling developers to easily implement their own apps.

WebRTC is not yet final. But once a stable API is ready, the development bodies intend to provide backward compatibility and interoperability. The work should be completed soon. More than 80 organizations are now collaborating with the WC3 and IETF.

Skype in the crosshairs

Assuming all goes as planned, WebRTC could both threaten major industry players and create new opportunities for others. Among those in WebRTC's crosshairs is none other than Skype, owned since 2011 by Microsoft. Because WebRTC transforms common browsers into a unified communications portal, Skype could be rendered obsolete. It's no coincidence that Microsoft recently joined the WebRTC consortium. And, in a "if you can't beat em, join em" move, Microsoft has also said it will support WebRTC in future versions of its browser.

Telecom carriers are under the WebRTC gun, too. Once people can make voice calls (and video calls, and share content and play games and...) from their PCs and mobile devices, why would they need landlines? "Voice calls are no longer going to be under the control of carriers," concedes Carolyn Billings, associate VP of AT&T's developer program, in a recent published interview.

Company contact centers are among those that could benefit from WebRTC. Today, most contact-center interactions are preceded by a website visit. That's precisely where WebRTC functions will be implemented. If each Web page has a real-time communications object, then the flow from the Web information structure into contact-center workflows can be tightly integrated.

For example, imagine calling your physician's office using an WebRTC connection. While the receptionist takes your call, someone else on staff could pull your medical records; then another practitioner could assess your condition via a video examination. Remember, this would all be on a single WebRTC call. Also, WebRTC calls can be "elevated" -- for example, a voice call could later add video. So different members of the physician's team could communicate with you, all on the same call, using whatever mediums they deem most effective.

Clever WebRTC implementations are already here. One is the Mayday feature on Amazon's Kindle Fire devices. Available in the U.S., U.K. and Japan, Mayday is activated by a simple screen-icon tap. The user is then connected with an Amazon technical advisor via a WebRTC session. The Amazon rep can hear the user speak, but see only the user's screen; the user can both hear the Amazon rep and see them.

So will Facebook become your phone company? One thing is certain: WebRTC is just getting started and the future should be one wild ride.

Masergy is a leading provider of managed cloud networking, advanced managed security and unified communications.

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