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Microsoft today announced it is backing the Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) technology and will be supporting the ORTC API in Internet Explorer. Put another way, the company is finally throwing its weight behind the broader industry trend of bringing voice and video calling to the browser without the need for plugins.

For those who don’t know, WebRTC is an open project that lets Internet users communicate in real time via voice and video simply by using a WebRTC-compatible browser. It enables Web app developers to include real-time video calling and data sharing capabilities in their products, which can range from games to video conferencing tools.

Microsoft and over 80 other participants are actively collaborating with the W3C and IETF to contribute and improve standards like the ORTC API for WebRTC. The W3C ORTC Community Group has issued a “Call for Implementations,” which means the ORTC specification has reached significant stability.

The main goal is to influence how the 1.0 version of the WebRTC API will function, though the company still hasn’t confirmed it will implement it in its browser. Microsoft is hoping to push ITU-T H.264 as the primary video codec and says it will offer audio codecs Opus, G.722, and G.711.

All of Skype’s biggest competitors are moving towards plugin-free browser calling features, and Redmond is finally admitting it has no choice but to do the same. In Microsoft’s own words: “It’s all about convenience — imagine you’ll be able to simply open IE and make a Skype call to friends, family, or get real-time support for that new device right from your browser.”

Both Google and Mozilla are way ahead of Microsoft in this area, both in terms of adding WebRTC features to their respective browsers and in terms of building plugin-free calling services that rely on the technology. In short, Skype is under threat, and Microsoft has finally decided to opt for an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy.

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