Explore the State of WebRTC and Low-Latency Streaming in 2021

Jun 25, 2021By Mo Nezarati

TL;DR

Earlier this year, WebRTC became an official standard and together with the expanded use of remote-work tech, this development has led to many fascinating new implementations to explore.

Estimated read time: 9 minutes


It’s been a landmark 15 months for real-time web-based communications. First, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed human interactions overnight, driving conversations and face-to-face exchanges online amid a need for physical distancing.

But there’s another reason WebRTC is having a moment: In January 2021, 10 years after its inception, WebRTC hit the significant milestone of becoming an official web standard.

It’s a timely declaration, given the outsized role WebRTC plays in how we live now. From workplace collaboration to virtualized services such as telehealth and education to gaming and entertainment, real-time communications protocols power an increasing proportion of our professional and personal activities these days.

In declaring WebRTC an official standard, the World Wide Web Consortium both conferred a degree of maturity to these communication protocols and began to position them for the future of WebRTC, setting the stage for improved end-user experiences and exciting new applications.

WebRTC apps have come a long way from their laggy, jittery early days. The improved quality and capabilities they now offer made these real-time applications the tools that kept the world connected during COVID-19 and will help them power a more connected future. But there are further leaps to be made.

Keep reading to explore more about the opportunities for (and potential barriers to) faster, smoother, more engaging real-time and low-latency apps moving forward. You’ll also learn how to prepare for this exciting new era of interactivity.

What is WebRTC?

From VoIP and video chats to gaming, we’re leaning into real-time communications apps more than ever. But with such considerable improvements in performance in recent years, it’s difficult to remember what the early days of WebRTC looked like.

When Google first announced the release of WebRTC, an open-source software package, the intention was to create a standard set of APIs that would allow the delivery of video and audio streams via all browsers. This was back in 2011—the same year Facebook exported its “like” button to external websites, the internet of things began to proliferate in homes via Nest’s smart thermostats, and Siri made her iPhone debut.

While we take those things for granted now, it’s important to remember that a decade ago, just about anything you wanted to do online was a far less seamless and interactive experience—including real-time functionalities. When it came to enabling real-time audio and video, we needed to rely on plugins like Flash. This added complexities due to factors like server license requirements, the need for software installation, and frequent updates. It would take another six years—until 2017—before Apple announced native support for WebRTC in Safari, finally achieving the initial goal of enabling these protocols on all browsers.

But the challenges weren’t just in the delivery. Connectivity and quality of service left much to be desired in the early days of WebRTC. For example, it could take 40 seconds or more to establish a connection and achieve HD resolution. Although there was significant improvement, QoS and user experiences remained hit or miss through much of the last decade, and to this day they don’t always live up to their promises.

Connecting in a remote world: The current state of WebRTC

For many people, the last year would have looked a lot different—and been much less entertaining, emotionally connected, and productive—without WebRTC. In 2020, the use of real-time apps surged as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted companies to shift their workforces to remote and lockdown forced people to stay home with only the internet to connect them.

Just how much did the pandemic impact people’s use real-time apps? Well, in the first weeks of lockdowns in March 2020, Google Hangouts usage soared 25 times over compared to just a couple of months before, while YouTube streaming more than doubled, from 15 billion to 32 billion minutes, in April 2020 vs. April 2019. It’s particularly interesting to note that spikes in getUserMedia calls, which are involved in WebRTC, aligned with COVID waves around the world.

The rollout of vaccines is unlikely to shift the trend towards virtual interactions. Today, WebRTC is supported by all web browsers and used by 95% of web users. At the same time, changes to personal consumption habits and workplace models are likely to be enduring due to the increased convenience and other appealing benefits of connecting remotely and virtually.

Therefore, WebRTC has truly become a critical player in how we live our lives now, enabling common everyday use cases including:

  • Unified business communications apps that keep remote and hybrid workforces connected
  • Customer support platforms and call centers
  • Social media voice and video apps such as Facebook Messenger
  • Social gaming platforms like Discord and Houseparty
  • Home surveillance apps such as Ring

The real-time app boom is coming.

Despite this impressive recent growth, WebRTC hasn’t peaked yet. In fact, the global market is expected to grow from $2.73 billion in 2019 to a forecasted value of $45.91 billion by 2027, a compounded annual growth rate of 41.7%.

This is due to both ubiquitous user access and the improved ease of building WebRTC apps. Engineers no longer have to code in low level languages (like C), while access to APIs has improved, accelerating implementation and essentially democratizing real-time apps.

But the trends driving WebRTC also include shifts in how people use and consume technology that have increased demand for connected experiences. Here are some additional factors that are fueling this real-time app boom:

The rise of hybrid and remote work: Fewer than one in five U.S. companies expects a full return back to the office. For most businesses, many employees will work on a hybrid or remote basis—and those organizations will need to implement communication tools that provide video and phone service from any device and location.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies: Along with the rise of hybrid and remote work has come an increase in BYOD policies, through which employees work on their own smartphones and computers. This poses potential challenges to previous workplace app models—which often required individual user licenses and software that had to be installed onto a device by IT—and instead favors more flexible web apps.

Ease and flexibility of using browser-based apps (and Chromebooks): Unlike native apps, which users need to download and install before using, web apps run directly from a browser window on any device. Web apps support WebRTC and are often lighter and faster than mobile apps while still providing full functionality.

Changing consumption preferences: It’s a chicken vs. egg scenario indeed, but the rise in demand for digital services and entertainment is fueling a plethora of new virtualized options, from expanded telehealth services to online classes to gaming and entertainment.

Expansion of 5G networks: Fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks can deliver high-speed connectivity and ultra-low latency. As these networks expand, they’re expected to improve real-time protocols even further and increase the proliferation and potential use cases for WebRTC.

Multi-screen viewing trends: Remember when watching TV was something you only did alone or in the physical presence of others? From sporting events to movies, at-home viewing has become a multi-screen experience, with the vast majority of viewers simultaneously using a second device to discuss and react to what they’re watching in real-time. Given these social viewing preferences, entertainment companies have an opportunity to use WebRTC to deliver live viewing streams to those second devices, creating new unified experiences.

A new era of interactivity: What’s next for WebRTC

There’s no doubt a golden age of real-time communications is upon us, and naming WebRTC an official standard—with the improved interoperability and consistency that follow—will only fuel this proliferation.

But just as the real-time apps of today bear little resemblance to their predecessors, the next-version use cases that are emerging will give rise to new interactive experiences, the full scope of which may still stretch the imagination today.

What can we expect as the connectivity, quality, and availability of real-time apps continue to expand? Here’s a glimpse into the exciting future of WebRTC:

More interactive, large-scale hybrid events Large conferences and trade shows may never fully return to the in-person only events they were prior to the pandemic, in part because of WebRTC. But rather than being driven by travel restrictions and the need for social distancing, some large events will likely remain partly virtual because there will no longer be a tradeoff between accessibility and convenience and the quality of the experience. With real-time audio and video streaming, the ability to support an unlimited number of virtual attendees, and capabilities that will allow those remote participants to interact with each other and the event they’re attending, WebRTC can enable more dynamic and interactive hybrid experiences that offer as much as being there in person.

Accessible, patient-friendly telehealth applications The COVID-19 pandemic fueled the adoption of virtual healthcare, resulting in a surge from 11% of U.S. consumers using telehealth to 46%. Providers are seeing as many as 175 times more patients remotely than they were before the pandemic. This massive acceleration will undoubtedly result in an expansion in WebRTC apps as providers scale up their remote offerings and seek out delivery channels that are user-friendly for healthcare providers and patients alike. Improved end-to-end encryption capabilities will further enhance patient privacy and grow confidence in new healthcare solutions.

Expanded remote work capabilities The shift away from the office will inevitably require new tools and solutions that support anytime, anywhere collaboration using any device. WebRTC will play an important role in enabling these workplaces of the future, providing remote and hybrid workers with flexible video meeting and communication tools that further enhance workflows via integrations with other workplace solutions, including CRMs and productivity tools.

More engaging streaming experiences From multiparty online games with voice and video participation to live fitness activities to opportunities for fan engagement during sporting event broadcasts, WebRTC will help unleash an exciting new level of interactivity to livestreams and broadcasts.

New niche applications Perhaps the most exciting thing about WebRTC is how well positioned it is to drive the apps of the future. Within many verticals, there are countless opportunities—many not yet recognized—to layer on interactivity and deliver niche offerings that will fill existing product and service gaps.

This new era of WebRTC will touch all aspects of how we live: how we consume and interact with live content, shop on e-commerce sites, participate in health and fitness activities, play online games, and work, to name just a few.

That said, not all of the WebRTC gains we’re expecting will be in entirely new applications. Ongoing improvements in the ability to quickly establish connectivity and support real-time applications mean that existing WebRTC use cases will become more interactive, more agile, and will enable better overall user experiences. In other words, we’ll also see more of the same—only minus the issues that have been a drag on real-time apps since their early days.

We can expect a better ability to layer voice communications on top of real-time interactive gaming, flexible phone services that allows users to switch networks during a call. Improvements such as instant connectivity for multiparty video conferencing and security enhancements, such as end-to-end encryption, are also likely.

A roadmap to the next generation of real-time applications

As potential uses expand and an increasing number of everyday devices become internet-enabled, the possible horizon for WebRTC seems limitless. But there’s still work to be done before real-time apps will reach their fullest potential.

User expectations will likely be a double-edged sword in this respect. While the high demand for interactive, real-time applications is undoubtedly helping to drive an exciting array of new WebRTC offerings to market, the more users engage with these apps, the higher their demands around performance and quality of service will become. When an experience falls short of expectations—for example, an app is slow to connect and offers laggy, jittery interactions, there’s a risk of poor adoption and app abandonment. In a crowded landscape of competing products, poor performance can be an especially big business risk.

But there’s also greater potential than ever before to fix issues that have weakened past offerings.

“WebRTC eliminated previous barriers that existed as far as enabling seamless and flexible online interactions. The move to standard will only improve delivery and expand the potential of real-time interactivity.These are exciting times, and among technology firms, there’s a huge propensity to move fast and deliver big changes. But in many cases, the networks themselves aren’t ready for the next generation of WebRTC, and without considering how we support real-time apps, there is a risk that all of this energy and innovation will be hampered by the networks that transport these streams," says Bayan Towfiq (CEO of Subspace).

To address these challenges and be well-positioned to deliver on the apps of the future, the first consideration that must be addressed is network readiness. This means revisiting how WebRTC works—and optimizing the foundational technologies to correct the causes of existing lags and issues.

An important factor to consider is how connectivity is established to support WebRTC protocols. This usually starts with Interactive Connectivity Establishment, or ICE, negotiations, a process of checking all of the available server candidates to establish a peer-to-peer connection.

With ICE, nodes propose their best candidates first and make their way through the available options until a suitable pairing is found. It’s a process that takes time and is responsible for many lags and connection delays users experience with WebRTC.

But Subspace’s GlobalTURN bypasses this step altogether.

Instead of having to test out options to find the best server pairing, GlobalTURN provides TURN as a service. By eliminating the need for multiple TURN servers, as well as the traffic bottlenecks that can occur from routing traffic through a single relay point, GlobalTURN does away with latency issues that often slow real-time apps and prevent them from fully delivering on their promise. Additionally, GlobalTURN avoids hairpinned media through servers. Its architecture makes TURN connections feel like peer-to-peer connections.

“Without optimizing the connections that are required to establish WebRTC, quality issues, connection lags, and other problems will still exist, and these stand in the way of the smooth, instant experiences that can be enabled—and that consumers increasingly expect. But by side-stepping the initial negotiations that are required to establish connectivity, Subspace is resolving some of the inherent challenges of WebRTC, and helping to pave the way for this next chapter,” -Bayan Towfiq, Founder and CEO of Subspace.

Conclusion: Ushering in the next era of WebRTC

The future of interactive apps is near, driven by the establishment of WebRTC as an official standard and shifting consumer usage and demands for real-time experiences. Because of these changes, we’re staring down a new era of interactivity that will enable faster, more engaging virtual connections than anything we’ve seen before.

But while there’s no doubt that exciting times are ahead, there’s still work to be done to make that potential a reality. The first step in optimizing low-latency experiences lies in improving the connections themselves. At Subspace, we’re empowering the future of WebRTC, and that starts with making fast, clear connections the norm.

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