A guide to WebRTC: The secret to effective voice and video calls over the web
What is WebRTC?
WebRTC stands for Web Real-Time Communication, which is an excellent summary of what it does. It is a technology that enables real-time communication between devices connected to the internet, using just their browsers. This includes both audio and video calls, as well as the transfer of data between devices.
The WebRTC protocol is what enables us to make free calls and have video chats using the cameras and microphones that are built into our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. No phone number, telephone wires, or even mobile signal is required.
Importantly, WebRTC is an open-source technology, which means it isn’t owned by a mega-corporation that may decide to withdraw support or monetize it in the future. It is also backed by tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, which makes it a dependable option for businesses looking to incorporate audio and video calling into their own applications to support a host of business use cases.
- WebRTC was first introduced by Google in May 2011 as an open-source project with the goal of enabling high quality communication between browsers, mobile platforms, and IoT devices, using a common set of protocols.
- The first browser-to-browser video call was made in February 2013 followed by the first data transfer in February 2014.
- In addition to peer-to-peer communication, WebRTC can also be used to facilitate multi-party communication, for example in video-conferencing solutions, or one-to-many communication, for example in distance learning or for information broadcasting.
- WebRTC’s open-source specifications have been published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and are available for any developer to use for free.
The beauty of WebRTC is that it enables any internet-connected device, on any network, to be a potential communication end-point, even those that sit behind firewalls. In only ten years it has become a cornerstone of communication and collaboration across the web.
How does WebRTC work?
Almost every communication device that we use today has a microphone and webcam built in. WebRTC uses the MediaStream API to access these functions to provide sources of audio and video data that can encrypted and streamed over the web to other devices and played on their speakers and screen.
It allows developers to create real-time audio and video calls, as well as data transfers, directly within web pages.
What is so special about that, you might say? Well, before WebRTC if one browser wanted to communicate with another then it had to go via an intermediary server. Think of internet chat rooms when users would navigate to a common website to start a chat. Or people playing computer games online who need to connect to the same server in order to interact with each other.
This is called a client-server architecture where the user’s browser is the client.
With WebRTC, once the initial connection between the browsers has been made, then all subsequent communication is directly between the browsers, with no third-party server required.
Is WebRTC secure?
As you would expect of an open-source project launched by Google, WebRTC has been designed to ensure the highest levels of security. However, you need to be aware that WebRTC is not automatically 100% secure and has both limitations and vulnerabilities that need to be addressed by the developers using the protocol to build secure communication solutions.
- Encryption: WebRTC uses end-to-end encryption via DTLS (Datagram Transport Layer Security), for audio, video, and data streams. However, when establishing the initial connection between devices, developers have to handle signaling separately. The signaling protocol used to make the connection will influence the overall security of the final solution. Using secure signaling, for example HTTPS, and using the best feasible authentication is fundamental.
- User privacy: Modern browsers will always request permission from users before accessing the device’s microphone and camera. This might be annoying at times but imagine if applications just started automatically streaming the feed from your webcam when you joined a video call or meeting. Developers must ensure that consent is always obtained, recorded, and respected throughout the entire communication lifecycle. They should also build in the option for users to withdraw this consent at any time.
- Deployment and management: Deploying WebRTC applications in a secure and responsible manner involves considerations like CORS (Cross-Origin Resource Sharing) policies, secure WebSocket connections, and HTTPS. In addition, doing regular security audits and always applying the latest updates and security patches is crucial.
When implemented properly, WebRTC enables highly secure communication across the internet. However, it is up to developers to ensure signaling security, user privacy and the ongoing management of their solutions.
What can WebRTC be used for?
While we will be having a close look at the business applications for WebRTC in the next section, there are many other areas where it excels.
- Did you know that WebRTC is used in many of the video chat tools that we use every day to keep in touch with friends and family – including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Google Meet.
- WebRTC is used extremely effectively in the education sector to provide a reliable and secure connection between teachers and their students. Millions of children worldwide relied on WebRTC during the Covid pandemic to keep up to date with their studies.
- WebRTC is used increasingly in the healthcare sector to enable housebound patients to meet with healthcare professionals via video call, and to automatically track symptoms and environmental conditions via IoT devices.
- In the security industry WebRTC is used to facilitate communication between devices like cameras, motion detectors, and smart doorbells with the web applications that monitor them and generate push notifications to users when they are triggered.
How is WebRTC used in business communication?
WebRTC video calling
There has been an exponential growth in the use of WebRTC for incorporating video calling into all sorts of scenarios for improving productivity and collaboration in the workplace. Where previously video conferencing required specialist recording equipment, lapel mics, and a quiet, private meeting room, the many features that WebRTC now supports have democratized video as a communication tool. These include:
- Conferencing: In addition to one-to-one video calls, it is now easily possible to create video conferences for groups of people, irrespective of their location or the device that they are using to connect. As long as they have a mic and a webcam and are connected to the internet then they can join the meeting.
- Improved video and call quality: It is now possible to use AI noise cancelling and face tracking to improve the quality and productivity of voice and video calls. This means people that are away from their usual workplace can join and contribute to calls without background noise and image quality ruining the flow of the meeting.
- Recording: Video calls can be easily recorded to be shared with people that couldn’t attend or as a record of what was agreed in the meeting. Recordings can also be used to create meeting transcripts later.
- Screen sharing: This feature enables participants to share their screens so that other people can see presentations, images, or complicated code or configurations that would be too difficult to describe verbally.
- Privacy: Enable background blurring or use virtual backgrounds to ensure privacy and add interest to video calls.
Contact center WebRTC use cases
By using WebRTC to shift seamlessly between communication channels, businesses have been able to provide a more efficient and cost-effective service to customers getting in touch via the contact center.
At any point in an email or web chat interaction, the agent can generate a Call Link using WebRTC and send it to the customer which will open a browser window where they can join a live video or audio call with the agent. It is even possible to customize the browser to reflect the business’ branding.
WebRTC for authentication
Some creative brands are using WebRTC to double check the identity of callers before personal or sensitive information is discussed. In this case the agent can check that the person they are interacting with matches the photo ID that they have on file.
Customer feedback and interviews via WebRTC
Trying to interview busy customers in store with a smile and a clipboard has never been an effective way of getting honest and constructive feedback. Use WebRTC to conduct video interviews when people are comfortable and relaxed at home.
Improved recruitment processes
Save on costs, shorten the recruitment cycle, and attract the best talent with efficient and secure video interviews using WebRTC. With the increase in remote working and greater access to regional labor markets, it is now an important tool in any effective recruitment strategy.
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