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Who Needs Plugins Anyway?

A Google-led browser technology will be the centerpiece of many more powerful Web apps.
February 20, 2013

If you want to video chat with a friend through online, you typically need to install some kind of browser plugin. Facebook, for example, uses a Skype plug-in for its built-in video chat; the same goes for any kind of any activity that relies on high-speed communication between your browser and a website.

A screenshot from Mozilla’s WebRTC demo.

But there is an easier way: an open standard for delivering real-time communications, like a pipe directly from a browser to another computer.  That technology is called WebRTC. It has huge potential, but it’s also hard to predict exactly where it might lead. Let’s take video chat between two computers as a simple example.

Until now, the host uses a plugin—Skype in the case of Facebook—to power its video chat. Your webcam stream is probably routed through Skype’s servers before appearing on your friend’s display. This is fine for Facebook, a company rich enough to negotiate with a deal with Skype, but what about smaller businesses or independent developers?

WebRTC solves the problem. Programmers will be free to implement it on their sites and use it to transmit live video and audio; the quality of the stream will adapt to the speed of an Internet connection in real-time—perfect for mobiles devices.

The video below shows a Mozilla demonstration of a shared browsing experience. Notice how the video stream is not bound to a single page, and how you can drop browser tabs and documents to a friend while you explore together:

Google is leading the charge on WebRTC developmen—probably because it will play heavily in the forthcoming HTML5 app economy, which Google is also pushing—but it’s the W3C that will decide what goes into the final spec in late 2013. In fact, WebRTC has already been implemented, in its current form, in Chrome, Firefox and Opera. Ericsson was first to release a mobile WebRTC-enabled browser called Bowser, which has been available on iOS and Android since last year.

Apple, however, has yet to announce Safari or iOS support. Some observers think this is because the video chat side of WebRTC will compete with FaceTime, or because HTML5 in general poses a threat to its native app economy. Apple could certainly very easily include full WebRTC support in next Safari; to ignore such a key element of HTML5 would be a bold statement indeed.

A screenshot from Mozilla’s WebRTC demo.

Meanwhile, Microsoft (which bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011) had hoped to challenge WebRTC with its own real-time competitor CU-RTC-Web. The name is off-putting, and so was the proposal. The W3C voted against it in favor of Google’s WebRTC by 22 to 4.

I hope we’ll see all browser makers get on board because cross-compatibility will be important. Just a few days ago the people at Chrome and Firefox used WebRTC to call each other from their respective browsers—a symbol of their commitment to open development and a sign that it’s ready to start implementing in projects.