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HTML5 and WebRTC: The future of online conferencing is coming

Robert Strobl
February 14, 2017

This article was published on the 21.12.2016 on silicon.de.

For many years, there was no way to get around Flash. Anyone who wanted to offer web conferencing and collaboration via a browser, and thereby make it universal and useable without installations, ultimately had no alternative to Adobe's platform. Its wide distribution (Flash is installed in over a billion browsers worldwide) is essentially still a guarantee today, just as before, that a vast number of users can be supported immediately, simply and conveniently.

WebRTC HTML5 future

The downside of enormous distribution

At the same time, these impressive numbers also have a negative aspect, as they attract the attention of cybercriminals. It is well known that, because of this, the Flash Player is one of the most-attacked software solutions. Reports about serious security lapses, which sometimes haven't been addressed by appropriate patches for a long time, haven't exactly improved the reputation of the platform in recent history (to state it cautiously).

For this reason as well, HTML5 and the open framework WebRTC have taken on a great deal of importance as possible "Flash successors" in the online conference sector. But, is the right time to "change the guard" in fact already here?

Decreasing browser support

The fact is: Anyone who follows the reports can certainly come to the conclusion that Flash's days are beyond numbered already. Support for the web plug-in is becoming increasingly limited in new and planned versions of widely distributed browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. HTML5 content will supposedly be automatically preferred where both formats are present; Flash elements must be specifically activated by the user or largely completely blocked, unless it involves content that is loaded in the background and is not displayed to the website user.

All of this is totally understandable. Except: It does nothing to change the fact that, at the present time, a radical transition to HTML5 is not yet practical in many areas, at least if a heterogeneous user base is meant to be addressed.

HTML5 alone is not enough yet

To clear things up, let's first look at the technical background: HTML5 itself is not (yet) sufficient for typical conferencing applications because it is impossible at the present time to use a webcam or a microphone, both of which are essential technical elements for the intended application.

Of course, this doesn't mean that this shortcoming won't be fixed in later HTML5 versions. In this case, providers and users are currently still relying on technologies like the open standard WebRTC, which has dramatic consequences. Since WebRTC does not currently support all browsers completely this excludes, for example, all users of Microsoft Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge and the Safari Browser from Apple in one stroke, which according to browser statistics already reduces the potential user base by about 35 percent all at once.

The number of "unreported" cases may be even higher since most web conferences take place in a professional work setting. Company-owned computers are mostly used for this purposes, and these users don't have the opportunity to install whichever individual browser they want due to internal IT regulations. To clarify: WebRTC support for the browsers named above is presumably on the way. But this only benefits users slightly, even assuming the implementation has actually taken place, and the exact time schedule remains unclear. Plus, this doesn't even take into account older versions of browsers like Chrome or Firefox, which also do not support WebRTC and, in reality, they are significantly more widely used than is frequently assumed.

A question of timing

In the end, producers and IT service providers must pose one simple question: As a provider of browser-based web conferencing solutions and/or services, can we afford to just completely turn our back on Flash? The same applies from the user's perspective.

No question: From a safety engineering point of view, a quicker transition would be desirable, but right now that would inevitably be bound up with the fact that around half of the potential users worldwide are expected to have serious limitations, which are sufficient to make the solution unusable.

A blind desire for action is not enough here. It looks like we will have to live with Flash for a while since, as everyone knows, those who are declared dead often hang around a lot longer than expected, especially now. Flash will not completely disappear overnight. And so we must come to terms with this fact as best we can.

That means: In parallel to preparation and development of new solutions for HTML5/WebRTC, Flash support must now also be continuously maintained. This is the only way to guarantee the smoothest and most seamless transition on "Day X."

The question of when exactly the right time for transition will arrive can only be answered to a limited extent. At Digital Samba, our current assumption is that the time will be ripe in the second half of 2017 due to the foreseeable extension of browser support and due to the further development of HTML5 and WebRTC. For that reason, we are currently working on the corresponding transition plan for our conferencing and online collaboration platform OnSync so we can quickly switch to HTML5, if necessary.

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