WebRTC – A viable alternative to Skype
August 18, 2014 4 Comments
Skype for Linux 4.3 and upwards requires the use of PulseAudio, which has caused discontent amongst those Linux users who do not use PulseAudio. Although I do use PulseAudio, I recently found out about WebRTC, an API (application programming interface) for browser-based communication offering most of the functions provided by Skype, namely: voice calling, video chat, text chat, file sharing and screen sharing. The official WebRTC site states:
WebRTC was originally released by Google but is now a draft standard of the World Wide Web Consortium, and is supported by Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers. Several commercial Web sites offer WebRTC-based communications to fee-paying customers, but I thought I would try WebRTC by using one of the so-called ‘demo’ WebRTC pages. AppRTC is a WebRTC demo page which can be reached from a link on the official WebRTC site, but I prefer Multi-Party WebRTC Demo by TokBox which offers a more polished experience with better features. Both are free to use and viable substitutes to Skype for video chatting (one-to-one or conference).
So, how do you actually use WebRTC-based sites? Below is a quick guide to get you going.
Text and video chatting
Open the following URL in Chrome or Firefox:
Enter a Room Name that is likely to be unique. I used ‘fitzchat’ (without the quotes), but you can use any name you want.
The other party or parties can do the same thing, i.e. they enter the same Room Name as you, and you will all become connected.
Alternatively, to send an e-mail invitation to someone, click on the URL at the top of the pane on the right-hand side (which is
Invite: https://opentokrtc.com/fitzchat in this example, as I chose to name the Room ‘fitzchat’). The partially visible pane at the right-hand side of the browser window will slide into full view when you click on it.
That’s all there is to it. You should see a video window showing each party, and they should see the same. Each party should also be able to hear the other parties. In the top right-hand corner of each video window is an icon (microphone for you; speaker for each of the other parties) which you can click on to mute/un-mute that party.
Click on the partially visible pane at the right-hand side of the browser window. Notice the ‘chat bar’ at the bottom where you enter commands and chat text. Read the grey instructions listed near the top of the pane:
Welcome to OpenTokRTC by TokBox
Type /nick your_name to change your name
Type /list to see list of users in the room
Type /help to see a list of commands
Type /hide to hide chat bar
Type /focus to lead the group
Type /unfocus to put everybody on equal standing
For example, to give myself a meaningful name instead of the default username Guest-0120e48c which was given to me automatically, I entered the following:
I found that screen sharing already works well in Chrome 36.0.1985.125 but is not yet supported in Firefox 31.0. It will be supported in Firefox 32 or 33, apparently, or you can already use Firefox Nightly providing you add the appropriate preferences via about:config.
To be able to share screens in Chrome, I had to perform two steps: enable a Chrome flag and install a Chrome extension. The two steps, which do not need to be repeated, are given below (see Ref. 1).
To enable screen sharing in Chrome, do the following:
- Open a new tab or window in Chrome.
- Copy the following link:
chrome://flags/#enable-usermedia-screen-captureand paste it in the location bar.
- Click on the ‘Enable’ link below ‘Enable screen capture support in getUserMedia().’ at the very top of the screen.
- Click on the ‘Relaunch Now’ button at the bottom of the page to restart Chrome.
To install the screen sharing extension in Chrome, do the following:
- Launch Chrome and click on the Menu icon.
- Click on ‘Settings’.
- Click on ‘Extensions’.
- Click on ‘Get more extensions’ and search for ‘webrtc’.
- Download ‘WebRTC Desktop Sharing’.
- This places an icon to the right of the URL bar in Chrome.
To share your screen or just a window, do the following in Chrome:
- Click on the ‘Share Desktop’ icon to the right of the URL bar and select either ‘Screen’ or the window you wish to share.
- Click ‘Share’.
- When sharing has started in a new Chrome window, select the URL of the relevant tab in that window and send it to the other parties via the chat pane on the right-hand side of the first browser window.
To stop sharing, click on ‘Stop sharing’ and click on the ‘Share Desktop’ icon to the right of the URL bar to get it to return to displaying the ‘Share Desktop’ icon instead of the || (Pause) icon.
I did not bother to try file sharing using WebRTC, but there are various Web sites you can use to do that. One such is ShareDrop, and googling will find others.
Chrome 36.0.1985.125 and Firefox 31.0 were used in this trial (I did not try Opera). I found that video chat worked faultlessly when both parties were using Chrome, and when both parties were using Firefox. However, when one of the parties was using Firefox and the other was using Chrome, I could not see myself in one of the video boxes in the browser window (although I could see the other party in the other video box in the browser window). Furthermore, there was a grey bar across the middle of the video images in the AppRTC demo, whereas the Multi-Party WebRTC Demo video images were normal. Other than those two issues, the experience was smooth and straightforward. My recommendation would therefore be to use Multi-Party WebRTC Demo and for all the parties to use the same browser, be it Chrome or Firefox. If you want to share your screen or a window, the logical choice at the moment would be Chrome.
UPDATE (January 2, 2015): Mozilla has added a button to Firefox 34 to provide account-free video chat using WebRTC. Mozilla calls this feature ‘Firefox Hello’.
I have it in Firefox 34.0.5 (I had to drag the ‘Hello’ button from ‘Customise’ | ‘Additional Tools and Features’). It works quite well. I didn’t bother creating an account; I just clicked on the ‘Email’ button to e-mail the automatically-generated URL to someone, and he clicked on the URL in the e-mail he received, which launched Firefox on his laptop and rang Firefox on my laptop. We tried both video and audio-only conversations, and both worked well. Firefox Hello is not as polished as Skype but, if Mozilla keeps working on it, they could end up with a good product.