Google wants to turn Chrome into a videoconferencing tool

Credit: Lars Plougmann via Flickr

For years, enterprises have been buying expensive and complicated video conferencing systems to conduct business meetings with people around the globe. In the future, though, like so many other enterprise tools, those purpose-built systems could be replaced by simpler, web-based consumer-caliber tools that work using only a simple browser.

That possibility was made even more feasible on November 7, when Google released version 23 of the Chrome browser. The update includes support for open source WebRTC protocols, which enable web browsers to incorporate Real-Time Communications (RTC) capabilities using simple Javascript APIs and HTML5. The open source project launched 18 months ago, and is supported by Google as well as Mozilla and Opera.

The most appealing part: users of any WebRTC-enabled browser could communicate with one another, regardless of the specific browser they're using. Participants would not need to be on the same platform, which is necessary today with competing products such as Microsoft's Skype, or Apple's FaceTime.

Just the thought of that has garnered at least some early interest of two IT leaders who spoke with CITEworld.

"For Brown University, I would say yes, we'd try it," said Michael Pickett, the CIO of the school. "We are adventurous," plus the university is already an early user of Google Apps for Education, giving it good experience with lots of other products from the company.

"We're always interested in new things that are coming out with the Google Apps suite," said Pickett. "So the question of how much further is it to involve a phone call or video chat inside a browser and have a way of figuring out how to connect to the other person is something we'd explore. I think that's not going to be a step that's too hard to have happen in the next five years."

Brown is often on the leading edge of technology, he said, having adopted cloud computing and a cloud-based ERP system in the last few years. Today the school is moving to a cloud-based learning management system for professors to get course materials out to students, including audio, video, links and more. Brown's IT staff supports about 8,000 students and about 8,000 professors and academic staff members.

The big deciding factor will come, he said, when businesses look at whether using WebRTC browser services can save businesses money while providing good web conferencing for their users. "If it will be more difficult for staff and students here at Brown, it would be hard to move to something like this."

One thing he likes about the WebRTC work so far is that it comes in the form of a tool kit, which lets developers take it and expand its capabilities for users, said Pickett.

"I'm always enthused about the potential of new technologies but after going through many, many cycles, I say let's see how it goes," he said. "It sounds like it could be really good."

Thomas Johnson, vice president and managing director of Aqueity, a technology consulting company, was a little more skeptical. He said WebRTC may not be needed because of Skype and other consumer web video conferencing applications.

"So far, it's just a set of protocols and a framework," said Johnson. "Applications still need to be developed. I don't think anyone cares about a framework" at this point. And consumers won't care about what's under the hood, they'll just want something that works when they click it, he said.

On the other hand, Johnson thinks the possibilities are interesting. "As a technologist I'm excited but as a CIO delivering business solutions to customers there is nothing to deliver at this point. It's going to be cool to see what apps will come out of this, but it will be some time before we see it."

Of course, WebRTC isn't the only game in town for consumer-level video conferencing that could ultimately serve enterprise customers.

Google is certainly pushing its Google+ Hangouts as a videoconferencing tool, and recently started integrating Google+ into its Apps suite businesses. Microsoft bought Skype and recently announced that it would transition its Windows Messenger services to Skype by the beginning of 2013 for users everywhere except China. Skype is already used by many businesses for phone conferencing and this makes the WebRTC project even more fascinating as an alternative to a wide range of pay and free web-based systems.

Chris Silva, an IT analyst with Altimeter Group, said Chrome's inclusion of the new WebRTC features is yet another push by Google to encourage enterprises to use and adopt its products.

"I think there's a tie-in here with what they announced with Google+ for the enterprise," said Silva. "Their idea is to use Google+ as an enterprise social network, like they announced after Google I/O."

So will enterprises bite?  Could they ever replace their enterprise-class conferencing tools for something like this?

"I think so, but probably not in the short term," said Silva. "It's probably 18 to 24 months before it's real." Also, he said, even though early WebRTC is arriving now, "CIOs are plenty busy today with other IT issues that really demand their immediate attention, including getting their corporate data safely into the cloud."

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