Core Differences Between WebRTC and Video Streaming

May 3, 2023
Core Differences Between WebRTC and Video Streaming

Core Differences Between WebRTC and Video Streaming

We see it time and time again.

A Product Manager or Engineer wants to give their users the ability to build community and fluid social experiences within their platform. To accomplish this, they decide to add real-time audio, video, and text-chat modules to their product, so that users can communicate without bouncing to other platforms. They start doing research and evaluating WebRTC solutions – or at least what they believe are WebRTC solutions.

Only after initiating the formal vendor selection process do they realize that most, if not all, of the WebRTC solutions they’ve been looking at don’t provide WebRTC functionality at all. They’re actually video streaming solutions. And while they may not realize it, video streaming solutions, simply put, aren’t what they’re looking for.

Let us say it nice and loud for the people in the back: WebRTC and video streaming are not the same. And conflating the two can turn your hunt for real-time social tools into a wild goose chase. Before you know it, you’ve invested a ton of time evaluating a platform that won’t give your users the ability to communicate the way you want them to.

Here’s what you need to know about the critical differences between WebRTC and video streaming.

Learn about Aircore’s WebRTC products for audio, video, and text chat.

Streaming: A one-way content flow

While both WebRTC and video streaming are ways of delivering content online, there’s one critical aspect of WebRTC that streaming lacks: two-way communication. When you stream your favorite movie, you’re not communicating, you’re just consuming content.

Put another way, streaming platforms only move content in one direction: from server to consumer. As an example, let’s use the company that brought video streaming into the mainstream: Netflix. When Netflix adds a movie to their service, they do so by leveraging something called content delivery networks (CDNs). Here’s how it works:

First, Netflix loads the movie onto a computer as a video file and breaks it into smaller segments. The content is then distributed across a network of servers around the world (this is the CDN). When you settle onto the couch with your popcorn and fire up the movie, Netflix pulls the movie from the CDN server that’s physically closest to you and delivers it, segment by segment, to your screen.

WebRTC: Real communication in real time

With WebRTC, on the other hand, users aren’t pulling pre-made, pre-loaded content from faraway servers for single-party consumption. Instead, audio and video content is captured in real time, from each involved party and their devices, and exchanged between parties in a two-way flow. All of this happens in a matter of milliseconds.

Aside from the communication aspect, another key difference is that WebRTC is a really hardware-intensive process. When you’re chatting with someone using WebRTC, the camera, microphone, and speakers on your phone or computer are capturing audio and video content, converting it, compressing it, and sending it to your conversation partner.

Why conflating WebRTC and video streaming is dangerous

So why is it important to understand the differences between WebRTC and video streaming? The way we see it, there are two main dangers that conflating these technologies can pose:

1. It undermines your goals for your product

If you’re looking for a way to enable your app or website for audio or video communication, you won’t find it in streaming technology. Understanding how WebRTC and streaming are different will help you avoid barking up the wrong tree and evaluating vendors and solutions that aren’t aligned with your goals. Streaming movies at home is fun, but it’s pretty much the opposite of community building. For that, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

2. It can help you avoid unnecessary lags

You know those moments when Netflix freezes and starts buffering while displaying that little red spinning circle? It’s the worst – and it always seems to happen right at the climax of the movie. The cause of this nuisance is usually some kind of transient network event, like a burst of packet loss or a latency spike. But as annoying as it is, in a streaming context, it’s at least tolerable. You can take the opportunity to run to the kitchen for some more popcorn – no harm, no foul.

In a WebRTC context, it’s different. When your users are communicating within your platform, delays like these can disrupt their conversation and quickly undermine their experience. In-person conversations don’t suffer from lags or poor audio quality – if your goal is to replicate those experiences, then neither should conversations within your platform. It’s just one more reason why WebRTC, not streaming, is the solution you need if in-platform social interaction is your goal.


Conflating WebRTC with video streaming is an all-too-common mistake for Product and Engineering teams alike. For companies looking for ways to deliver authentic community through their platforms, WebRTC is the way to go. Take a look at Aircore’s audio, video, and text chat SDKs to see what seamless in-platform communication can look like in your product.