Plantronics hopes to nullify these problems. By pushing the adoption of WebRTC (Real Time Communication) APIs into the HTML5 standard, the headset maker looks to a future in which browsers natively support high-quality phone and videoconferencing capabilities -- no add-ons required.
But making day-to-day communications a little more convenient is only a start. HTML5 integration means the specialized art of softphone creation will be translated to Web development's more common and accessible programming language. If developers are engaged by these new powers, Plantronics believes that plug-in-free conference calls will be just the tip of a technological iceberg.
As a primary sponsor of the inaugural WebRTC Conference and Expo, Plantronics is one of several companies aggressively pushing WebRTC. Google, the event's other major sponsor, is also in the game, and 16 additional companies -- including big names like Mozilla and Oracle -- have pledged their support for the conference, which kicked off Tuesday in San Francisco.
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Plantronics CTO Joe Burton delivered the WebRTC Conference's keynote address. In an interview, he said developing popular softphone and videochat services such as Skype, Jabber and Lync now requires people with advanced, low-level video processing knowledge and C++ skills. WebRTC's inclusion in HTML5 could realign this paradigm. The process would "get democratized," Burton stated. "Suddenly everyone with basic Web development skills can create or modify a communications application."
He said that the evolution from traditional communications hardware to voice over IP (VoIP) has been significant -- but not nearly as dramatic as other technological progressions. If WebRTC catches on, he predicted, it could be the first time that the communication industry's pace of innovation matches that of the overall Web.
"Big players can innovate faster and smaller companies can jump in," Burton said. "Much like on the Web, developers can now create tailored, customized communication applications for more verticals or business workflows."
As an illustration, Burton described business websites that allow users to speak directly to customer service representatives through the browser. Burton said these sites are too expensive and labor-intensive to be widespread; going forward, developers will be able to add these functions with only a few lines of extra code, making the technology accessible to businesses of all kinds. There's clear potential for WebRTC to improve functions like customer service -- but Burton said making it easier to harness the technology could produce applications as varied and unforeseeable as the Web itself.
Plantronics is trying to accelerate that process by releasing source code that allows headsets to communicate via Bluetooth with WebRTC-enabled browsers. If people use the Web for more and more of their communications, Burton said, "It becomes ever more important to have a great speaker or microphone on your body or nearby that's able to interact with the Web browser."
The more popular WebRTC becomes, in other words, the more opportunity there is for Plantronics and its competitors to sell equipment that optimizes the experience. "By solving problems earlier and releasing the code as open source, we can foster WebRTC adoption while maybe sneaking in a few headset sales," Burton remarked, adding, "A rising tide helps everyone."
A WebRTC focus falls in line with Plantronics's recent strategy of emphasizing software as much as hardware. This effort has included an SDK released last May as well as a variety of applications unveiled in September. Browser makers such as Mozilla and Google have been ramping up their WebRTC efforts, too. Burton said he expects all the major browsers to offer mature and stable integrations within the next year or so.