The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews David Smith
Here is David Smith, a true student and careful observer of the Web conferencing industry. David is a true gentleman who has been working to educate and facilitate the adoption of many different Web conferencing systems for both large and small companies.
His company Obidicut LLC offers a variety of independent services to those interested in Web conferencing. These include: an interesting and well written monthly newsletter called WebSeminarian, and a number of corporate communication and marketing services (through a company called Web Conferencing Warehouse).
By providing services that facilitate the adoption and integration of different Web conferencing solutions, David Smith does not see online collaboration as a one-name brand. He uses and recommends alternative products and technologies depending on the specific needs of his customers.
His opinions and answers reflect his broad view and appreciation for the industry at large and I personally liked much of the depth, insight and greater understanding he has brought to this table.
Robin Good: What should the corporate enterprise market expect from Web conferencing vendors in the near future?
David Smith: At the high end of the market, the clearest trend is integration - making Web conferencing just another part of the desktop. Microsoft's recent Live Meeting release points the direction for Web conferencing to be as natural on the desktop and in the IT department as e-mail, instant messaging, and calendaring.
Robin Good: How will Web conferencing tools evolve in one year from now? And in three?
David Smith: The actual tool set for leading Web conferencing platforms hasn't changed much in the last two years. The real advances will come in integration with the other productivity tools. By this time next year I expect that all Windows-based PCs will ship with the Live Meeting client embedded and ready to interact with Outlook, Exchange, and Messenger.
This will give Microsoft an incredible advantage in the marketplace, one that competitors will have to counter through pricing, special features, or integration with other services.
Three years out is a very long time, but I hope that Web conferencing tools have more built-in help, high-quality integrated VOIP, as well as management of recorded Web conferences as strategic assets.
Robin Good: If you were to describe your ideal Web conferencing tool what would it be like?
David Smith: I don't believe there is one conferencing tool that serves all applications. A great online seminar must have features that make no sense in a collaborative tool (such as polling) and vice versa.
The tools that attempt to deliver every possible feature can be difficult to use and unreliable. I'm not attempting to dodge the question, but instead say that there may be an optimal feature set and price for several discrete applications: events/seminars, collaborative meetings, training, remote diagnostics and service, and remote presentations. That perspective helps explain WebEx's product line, for example.
Robin Good: What kind of role will play the SOHO market into the development and growth of the enterprise one? How do the two interact?
David Smith: The SOHO market is driving innovation in feature sets and pricing. Not willing to commit to many hundreds or thousands of dollars for a monthly subscription, SOHO users are more willing to give the low-cost per-use and flat-rate vendors a try. That willingness encourages the launch of new companies with new collaboration features and models. As low-cost alternatives succeed in the SOHO market, they can begin to challenge the leading vendors, which helps keep prices from escalating.
Robin Good: What is the one aspect of online collaboration that has been the least understood so far by the companies developing the products?
David Smith: I'd have to say training.
Learning how to push the buttons on a Web conferencing console takes a half hour. Figuring out how to become more effective in one's job through a sophisticated Web conferencing tool takes much longer.
Much of our business comes from small and medium-sized businesses who had negative initial experiences with Web conferencing simply because no savvy veteran listened to their business problems and showed them how Web conferencing should be employed. They are ecstatic that we answer the phone, talk them through the initial steps, offer different levels of training, and support them personally as they ramp up. The capabilities of the technology are far beyond the experience of the average worker.
Robin Good: What do the WebEx, Live Meeting, Interwise and other enterprise conferencing tools have that it is impossible to find in competing low-cost solutions?
David Smith: Their back-end administration and reporting capabilities are much better. These companies have worked with large corporations and understand (somewhat) how they want to manage shared Web conferencing resources and assign costs.
SOHO users don't necessarily miss these features.
Enterprise-level vendors also are ahead in understanding the importance of recording and reusing Web conference content, although they still lack good editing and delivery features.
Robin Good: How relevant will be the issue of authentication and identity for you in online meetings? Why?
David Smith: What issue? If you're sharing sensitive information, it's most likely with a small, select group, and it's very easy to verify identity through voice over the phone, or by having an operator call out to all attendees. If all the appropriate people are on your call, you lock the call. Then share the Web conference URL over the phone, so it can't be intercepted through e-mail. Most Web conferencing tools show you who's logged in to the Web portion as well. Given the live component of a Web conference, I feel more confident of security than I would using e-mail or a Web page.
Robin Good: What are three Web conferencing tools that you have used and you would recommend as best of breed to any client who asked you for advice? Why?
David Smith: WebEx has the best feature set for small collaborative meetings. It doesn't take long to learn how to be productive, and impress, a remote participant. Having run many successful events using PlaceWare (aka Live Meeting) without a hitch, it is the one I trust for large seminars and events. For ad-hoc presentations, I use StartVisuals, because it starts up almost instantly and is ridiculously easy to use. It has also proven to be quite reliable for a low-cost platform. In the interest of full disclosure, my company also resells these three and other technologies. As I mentioned before, different tools for different applications.
Robin Good: If end users could design a system around their true core online collaboration needs which three features do you think they would keep of all the ones they have available today?
David Smith: We conducted a poll among the readers of our Web Seminarian newsletter asking them their most important Web conferencing feature. PowerPoint presentation was most popular with 45% of the vote. Showing live applications (18%) and collaborating on documents (16%) were well behind. These would be my choices as well.
Robin Good: What is the price model that is going to work best in this market?
David Smith: We're seeing backlash against the monthly subscription model, in which the vendor hosts a certain amount of capacity in terms of seats or users. I can understand why technology vendors like it, as it relates directly to the number of servers and support staff that are needed to deliver the service. However, large customers don't appreciate having to buy a large number of seats to meet fluctuating demand, nor the hassle of stretching a limited number of seats across a large number of users.
Long term, I think most large companies will bring Web conferencing in-house and run it as part of the IT department.
In the SOHO market, and for many mid-sized companies, the subscription model can be too costly and inflexible. The trend we're seeing is towards flat-rate models, especially as new competitors increase the quality of the market's offerings.
We encourage companies to use a combination of models to fit their different applications. For example, using a flat-rate subscription for regular training and internal meetings, and a per-use service for large, infrequent events. Not only will that save money, but let each group use the tool that is suited for the job.
Robin Good: In the marketing and promotion of Web conferencing and online collaboration products what do you think have been the vendors greatest shortcomings?
David Smith: It's a very confusing market.
There are dozens of platforms and hundreds of private-label versions. There are too many pricing models with indecipherable conditions.
Providers focus too much on pitching features and not enough on making sure new customers are successful in applying their new Web conferencing tools.
I think the industry needs to remember that it is selling a service, not a technology. Technology can be complex, but a service must be painless. A service needs to be simple to understand, learn, use, and budget for. Live, experienced assistance - not just a call center - gives new customers the confidence to use the tools. Set-up fees, overusage fees, branding fees, minimum usage requirements, and the like may seem to boost short-term profit but really serve only to turn off many new customers.
If the providers can simplify the technology and purchase options, and truly look after their customers, the market potential is enormous.
David Smith is co-founder of Obidicut, LLC, a marketing and Web conferencing consulting company. With five years of experience in the industry, he is also editor of the Web Seminarian, the industry's only newsletter devoted solely to Web conferencing users, as well as proprietor of the Web Conferencing Warehouse, a source for name-brand technologies with great service at low costs.
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