Jeff Singman operates two brick-and-mortar specialty toy stores in New Jersey and has wanted to provide an ecommerce website as well. Singman says his two Toy Genius stores, which he co-owns with his wife, offer shoppers a high level of product knowledge and customer service to stand out from other toy sellers. Employees wear lab coats and demonstrate products for customers. Gift wrapping is free of charge.
But Singman found it difficult to replicate that brand of white-glove service online. "We were looking for a way to bring that ... shopping experience to the Web. I actually had the vision since 2011, but I couldn't affect that vision."
What Singman had in mind was the capability to reach out to customers via voice and video to discuss toys and show different products in action. That approach, however, would have required customers to download plug-ins or a full-blown application such as Skype. "You're not going to get anybody who's shopping to do that," Singman says.
The Toy Genius has now turned to WebRTC, a set of components that enable real-time voice, text and video communications within supported browsers. WebRTC, an open source project that surfaced in 2011, has the backing of Google, Mozilla and Opera. Since WebRTC places functions such as video chat within a browser, there's no need for the user to launch a separate application or download a plug-in.
That ease-of-use factor attracted Singman to WebRTC. He plans to launch a Toy Genius ecommerce site in late August, with WebRTC operating in the background. The site will use a multimedia communications platform from Genband, a Frisco, Texas company that incorporates WebRTC in its products.
WebRTC Lowers Web Developers' Barrier of Entry
The Toy Genius example illustrates WebRTC's enterprise potential. Outside of retail, the technology has also begun to impact call center and video conferencing applications. Healthcare and education are other potential markets where WebRTC could play a role.
Enterprises and service providers planning to pursue WebRTC face some limitations with the emerging framework. The key roadblock is lack of universality. Widely used browsers such as Internet Explorer and Safari don't support WebRTC, which puts a crimp in the browser-to-browser communication WebRTC seeks to promote.
WebRTC, while still in its early days, has acquired a higher profile of late. Amazon Kindle's Mayday button, which summons live video-based tech support, is thought to use WebRTC. Merger and acquisition activity also underscores the interest. Snapchat, the popular photo sharing service, in May acquired AddLive, a video chat service based on WebRTC.
Singman says the Kindle implementation and merger moves have jumpstarted awareness regarding WebRTC's possibilities. "I think you're going to see more and more implementation."
Indeed, part of WebRTC's appeal, according to its supporters, is that its uptake could extend well beyond a few flagship applications among the top-tier Internet players. The reason: WebRTC's underlying technologies make it accessible to a broader range of developers.
With WebRTC, Web developers can now create sophisticated communications apps that were once the province of telecommunications specialists, according to Bush. "It's the first time in the communications world where we have a lower barrier of entry and Web developers can build communications apps."
WebRTC Appeals to Call Centers, Videoconferencing Firms
Development activity is particularly strong among call centers, which have a high interest in multi-modal customer communication. In one example, TeleSpeak, an Orlando, Fla.-based developer of cloud communications and collaboration solutions, plans to redevelop its software on the WebRTC platform, according to Chance Myers, TeleSpeak's co-founder and chief sales and marketing officer.
TeleSpeak products, such as its Contact Center AnyWhere software, have been running on the open source Asterisk platform for communications applications. The company, however, is now working with Voice4Net, a Dallas, Texas provider of contact center technology, to create applications using WebRTC. Rick McFarland, chief executive officer of Voice4Net, said his company builds on top of WebRTC's underlying functionality.
A new, WebRTC-based version of Contact Center AnyWhere is scheduled for beta release in August, with general availability to follow in September.
Myers says his company has shown some screen shots to clients and discussed the new version's functionality. The response has been positive. "A lot of our clients are very savvy in the software business and have done independent research on the WebRTC kernel," he says.
The combination of WebRTC and Voice4Net's development on top of that framework will provide greater scalability, simplified customization and improved manageability, Myers says.
Videoconferencing companies, meanwhile, are also pursuing WebRTC. JurisLink provides a video conferencing services linking defense attorneys to clients in prison. The Raleigh, N.C.-based company has been using Microsoft's Lync for videoconferencing, but plans to relaunch its service on CaféX Communications' Fusion technology, which is based on WebRTC.
Slade Trabucco, president of JurisLink, says his company is now in production with CaféX and plans to launch the videoconferencing service within the next 40 days. "The cool thing about WebRTC is it is so user friendly," he says, noting that most attorneys aren't particularly tech savvy. "Current video conferencing creates a lot of extra tech support and worry on our end."
With JurisLink, on the other hand, attorneys log in at the JurisLink website or JurisLink's iPad app to schedule and conduct a video conference with their clients. The clients use a kiosk JurisLink installs in county jails or detention centers (currently eight facilities in North Carolina and Virginia). Meetings aren't recorded, the company says, and meeting data is encrypted.
Trabucco said the WebRTC/CaféX solution makes it easier for users. The technology combination automatically initiates webcams and microphones, which didn't happen with the Lync-based offering.
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"If you go go to the [JurisLink] webpage, video conferencing will just open and your camera and mic are going to be on," Trabucco says. "You're not going to have to remember to hit this or that button to turn on the mic or the camera. There are no barriers to enter the meeting."
Sajeel Hussain, vice president of product marketing at CaféX, sees wide applicability for WebRTC, citing education, healthcare and insurance as examples in addition to the legal field.
Meanwhile, Saraj Mudigonda, senior business development manager at Imagination Technologies, a London-based company that unveiled a WebRTC media engine in April, see companies using WebRTC in applications such as customer support (along with education and healthcare).
Lack of Universal Browser Support Hinders WebRTC's Further Spread
The most obvious obstacle in the path of WebRTC usage is incomplete browser coverage. Getting Microsoft on board with WebRTC will go a long way toward filling the coverage gap. Bush believes that IE support is perhaps 18 months away.
In the meantime, companies are working around the issue.
McFarland says Voice4Net focuses its WebRTC activity on contact centers and doesn't go after the consumer space. "We don't believe WebRTC is ready for the mass market yet or the consumer side," he says. "It's not embraced by every browser. You can't force the consumer to pull up Chrome."
Vendors, however, are working to accommodate users who come to a WebRTC equipped site but lack a compliant browser. Genband, for instance, provides its Spidr WebRTC Gateway, which takes on a number of roles including the mediation of the browser issue. The gateway checks a user's browser type and version and pushes a plug-in if the browser doesn't support WebRTC.
Genband uses a commercial plug-in from AddLive; Bush cites the availability of several commercial and open source plug-ins that provide WebRTC-like functionality. Developers have also created Flash-based plug-ins that perform WebRTC-like behavior, he adds.
Singman said Genband's technology will let his retail website move forward, even without ubiquitous browser support. "WebRTC is fairly straightforward, but we're in the early stages," he says. "There are things we're learning every day."