Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews Rich Baker

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If you work in the real-time collaboration industry, inside a Web conferencing company, or develop technologies that allow people to communicate through the Internet, you owe it to yourself to stop and take the time to read carefully through the pre-monitions, anticipations and sheer innovative ideas that emerged during this passionate exchange I had with Richard Baker of Glance Networks.


Here is one new interview on the future of Web conferencing that brings great insight and some far-reaching considerations.

The ideas that have emerged in this interview well outline the intellectual wealth of this highly respected industry-veteran.

Kudos to Rich Baker for his uncanny ability to look beyond the present and for his openness in sharing ideas developed not only on an outstanding amount of field-experience and true technological competence, but also by critically intersecting highly refined personal understanding of cultural issues, psychology and marketing whith what stands evident in front of us.

While leaving to others to praise the virtues of his own uniquely powerful Glance collaboration technology, Rich Baker goes on peeling off the glamour and chrome from one of the fastest growing business areas today to tell it like it really is.

Technological obstacles do not dampen his thrust, and his personal understanding of marketing strategy and people expectations, puts Rich Baker in the unique position of those who can well anticipate and bravely ride the design of our future collaboration standards and tools, as his outstanding technology clearly demonstrates.

Sporting a first-class Ivy-league academic pedigree in his credit line and with technical know-how to spare, Rich Baker fires back at each question I asked with impressive clarity and conviction.

You can feel, he knows what he is talking about.

As he points out, the issue, is more anthropological than technical. The reasons leading people to use online collaboration tools being psychological and dictated by very simple, fundamental rules: Laziness, habit, fear, curiosity.

I must really invite you to take the needed time to print out this interview and to enjoy its reading while giving it your maximum attention.

If you are into Web conferencing, live e-learning, online collaboration, you will find invaluable information in it and the opportunity to question and reassess some of your long held beliefs about where we are headed.

Robin Good: Rich, what are the key trends that you have been spotting in the Web conferencing industry in the last 12 months?

Rich Baker: I believe the biggest story for Web conferencing this past year is the solid increase in market awareness and acceptance. WebEx started the process a few years ago with their branding campaign. With Microsoft's recent acquisition of Placeware, the industry is getting another big wave of advertising targeted at building awareness and making the business case. All this helps legitimize the web conferencing space.

That said, the number of people who have made the effort to initiate their own Web conference is still quite small. So this market is in still in the early stage, not unlike email in the mid-1980s. While many people have now heard of Web conferencing and some have even participated in an occasional session, only a fraction reach for the tool to initiate their own sessions today. I believe the biggest reasons are fear of "looking bad" in front of others and the inertia of changing one's behaviour.

Robin Good: Which specific tool [has e]merged in the last 1-2 years has impressed you the most?

Rich Baker: I really like Brainshark's service. It's an extremely simple-to-use, yet comprehensive web service for voice-annotating a presentation and posting it on the web or securely distributing it to a select group. It includes reporting tools so you can track who has viewed the content. It is perfect for delivering product marketing messages, internal communications, and asynchronous training.

Robin Good: How will real-time collaboration tools look in one year from now? And in three?

Rich Baker: Short term I believe we will see still more vendors enter the space - established companies and startups - as collaboration begins to transition from a "nice-to-have" into a "must-have" tool for business communications.

The market feels quite young to me and its potential reach is vast.

Just look at the many ways different real-time "collaboration" tools are used today: tech support, virtual meetings, Web demos, distance learning, virtual trade shows, webinars, design reviews, getting customer approvals, and remote access. I believe the list will continue to grow, as businesses discover the many ways they can modify their processes to capture the efficiencies offered by a broad array of collaboration tools.

Perhaps the most broadly visible change during the next few years will be Microsoft's introduction of real time and asynchronous collaboration technologies in MS Office, instant messaging and the operating system itself.

Given Microsoft's pervasive reach, most people will get their first taste of rich media collaboration using Redmond's tools.

Robin Good: What is the area of online collaboration where the industry has not been making enough progress?

Rich Baker: I find many customers complain about the industry's confusing mix of packaging and pricing options. They know the enterprise per-port model doesn't work for SMBs. Per-minute pricing is often too expensive. No one wants to pay overusage charges, but what should a service provider "limit" to preserve upside for increased usage? It's tough to find a one-size-fits-all model, although I believe the answer is to follow the data network business model - flat rate, with simple tiers that quantify gross usage.

Robin Good: If you were to define your own perfect Web conferencing tool what would it be like? And how much would it cost?

Rich Baker: I don't think it would be a "Web conferencing" tool per se. Having to initiate conversations from a Web page seems unnatural.

My preferred tool would be a feature of today's IM or voice services, because that's where most conversations begin. With a single click by either party, the conversation could be enhanced with rich media, providing a common, shared view of what we are discussing.

Cost should be no higher than other voice features, like caller ID and voicemail - $5 to $10/month. Now that would be cool!

Robin Good: Who do you think stands the best chances of creating the tool that you have just described?

Rich Baker: Obvious integration points are the softswitch (PBX) and presence engines, which is why this "perfect tool" is not here yet.

Folks making these devices seem too busy today getting their primary value proposition (VoIP and enterprise-ready IM) up and running to spend time on rich media. In a few years, as their resources free up, they will address the opportunity, likely by acquiring collaboration companies.

Robin Good: How does the future of Webex, Centra, Live Meeting and other big enterprise players look to you?

Rich Baker: Given Microsoft's Placeware acquisition and its intention of integrating rich media technologies into Office, Messenger, Remote Desktop and VoIP telephony, the occasional migraines WebEx and Centra feel today seem destined to become a chronic pain.

It's going to take time for Redmond to sort through their integration of Placeware. The present architecture includes a couple of super-sized mugs of bitter tasting Java and Unix. Flushing those down the drain will keep their engineers distracted for a while.

But their long-term threat is always daunting.

Integrating their own collaboration into Office and XP while precluding competitors from doing the same is to be expected.

Also up in the air is what will happen to prices. I have heard Microsoft execs state they intend to keep margins high, and so far they have (to the chagrin of SMBs). But in the same breath they added that they are looking for creative ways to price and package these technologies to rapidly drive widespread adoption, which sounds like a euphemism for "cheap bundling."

That said, I believe WebEx, Centra and other big players need to focus on delighting their customers, growing as quickly as possible. Simply targeting spaces that Microsoft fails to address is a losing strategy.

But I believe collaboration will always have a big service component - after all, it's about connecting people in real time over third party networks - and Microsoft has yet to prove it can compete in the service arena.

Robin Good: What are going to be the major obstacles that these companies are going to meet?

Rich Baker: Doing collaboration "right" from a user interface perspective is extremely challenging, and Microsoft is bound to make mistakes along the way.

Since it is difficult to make one size fit all, there will be space for alternative approaches better targeted to specific needs. But we have a saying inside Glance that "familiarity breeds ease of use," meaning end users eventually adopt even clumsy solutions, just because they become familiar.

Microsoft's ubiquity cannot be underestimated in the long term and they alone can dictate the market's price structure.

In the near term, I believe the major Web conferencing players will continue their ongoing "features" war, adding complexity in an effort to have the most "check marks" and justify high prices. Enterprise customers tend to encourage the behavior, because IT prefers having a single corporate standard that meets most internal customers' needs.

Over time, I think the biggest challenge for the major vendors is their high margin business model. As lower priced alternatives currently targeting SMBs become enterprise-capable, the majors will find it increasingly difficult to sustain high margins.

It is extremely painful to move a business down-market. The crisis could hit even sooner should Microsoft choose to get aggressive on price.

Robin Good: What do you think is the most misunderstood concept about online collaboration and how it should be like? (That one thing that if done differently would radically change the way think of Web conferencing or real-time collaboration online.)

Rich Baker: A communication tool delivers little ROI unless it is broadly adopted.

I believe many in the industry have forgotten that (1) most people are lazy, (2) that most prefer simplicity to features and (3) that no one likes to "look bad" in front of others.

Many collaboration tools are too complex for the "average Joe" to bother learning or risk using for fear of looking foolish.

Basic functions need to be "one button" simple. Otherwise, people will
do what comes naturally - not bother changing their behavior.

Robin Good: In which ways are the SOHO and "enterprise" markets substantially different when it comes to Web conferencing, live presentations and real-time collaboration?

Rich Baker: The enterprise customer tends to have a much longer feature list, because they prefer a single solution that can satisfy a wide variety of internal customer needs. They also have tighter security requirements. Perhaps half of the enterprise customers will prefer licensing software so they can exert more control, while the rest would prefer outsourcing.

But the biggest difference is price sensitivity. Few SOHOs can afford enterprise-class price models.

Robin Good: Why companies having 100,000 or 10,000,000 collaboration tools out in the market (instant messengers) have not been able to capitalize on their reach, while comparatively small firms in the enterprise market have been able to repeatedly scout the best margins in the industry?

Rich Baker: IM addresses a different market. Most of the volume you cite is for consumers and is a free service. It took time for IM vendors to add security and auditing and develop a business model for the enterprise. Having said that, IM has one fundamental flaw that I don't see ever going away: limited reach. Many business people need the reach and ubiquity of the telephone and email. Without a universal global "presence engine," IM cannot match beyond-the-enterprise business communication needs.

Robin Good: What do you think would be the ideal business model of the future when it comes to real-time collaboration? And which one do you think will prevail?

Rich Baker: I don't believe that just one model will prevail. ASPs dominate today's early market. Companies like Centra and Placeware, which launched with a software license model, have followed the money and migrated to a mostly service-based business. As the market matures, I expect the share of revenue going to software licenses will grow, but there will always be a service play for the SMBs and a sizeable fraction of the enterprise market.

Over time, a portion of the market will migrate to phone companies that add rich media capabilities, but I think they will fulfill everyone's expectation of being stunningly slow laggards.

Robin Good: How are the enterprises changing with the growing adoption of these new collaboration tools?

Rich Baker: One big trend is less use and less frequent purchases of expensive video conferencing systems. The Web brings tremendous value right to the desktop at much lower cost and higher reliability.

Robin Good: What do you think is the greatest obstacle to standardization and interoperability of these collaboration tools?

Rich Baker: By leveraging platform technologies like HTML, Java, Active-X and Flash, I don't see a driving need for standardization or interoperability at the protocol level.

Standards like T.120 and H.32x were mandatory for the video conferencing box business, but irrelevant in the software-based web conferencing space.

If you can connect, who cares?

As long as the underlying technologies allow application-specific protocols to remain proprietary, innovation will flourish.

Robin Good: How do you see the future of small companies developing Web collaboration products?

Rich Baker: I believe there are lots of opportunities in the near term. This market is quite young, with room for creative new approaches to help people work at a distance. That said, many of today's small companies must be acquired or they will go out of business. To survive long term, you have to stake out your space, defend it and grow.

Robin Good: Where do you stand in respect to Microsoft DRM strategy, TCPA/Palladium and their restrictions on interoperability of MSN with other instant messengers and collaboration tools?

Rich Baker: My (limited!) understanding of DRM and TCPA/Palladium is that they're good technologies controlled by the wrong cast of characters. It seems they are being promoted or developed by consortiums of companies seeking to protect their prevailing business models.

Companies cannot be both merchants and police. We've been through this problem many times before.

The right place for such efforts is within a neutral standards body, like the IETF, IEEE or ISO. They help prevent conflicts of interest that could poison promising technologies.

Regarding IM interoperability, if it were going to happen, it would have already.

Don't hold your breath...


Rich Baker, Ph.D., has over twenty-five years of experience in digital video, Internet and rich media. He is CEO and Co-Founder of Glance Networks, a simple-to-use web service for showing a live view of your computer screen to guests online.

Dr Baker was one of the key forces that launched the industry wide effort leading to the international H.323 standard for Internet videoconferencing and Voice over IP.

During the 1980s, he was an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at UCLA, researching image and video compression technology.

Baker graduated with honors in 1974 from the California Institute of Technology, received his M.S. from the University of Southern California in 1978 and his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1984. He has over twenty-five technical publications, one patent, and is co-author of the book Digital Compression for Multimedia.

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    posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, October 22 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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