Here is the first in a series of interviews about Web conferencing and real-time collaboration I will be publishing in this space in the coming days.
In this set of interviews I have chosen to interact with people who deal daily with interactive communication technologies both from the point of view of creating and selling these tools, as well as from the one of those who develop, study, analyze, market and report about them.
My point of view is always one of the final user.
Real-time collaboration and Web conferencing industries are going through fast monumental changes at this very time, and the ability to understand the macro process taking place as well as the future direction(s) they will follow is a very valuable exercise as much as a tool to question and reflect upon the long standing assumptions you may have had about what technology will bring to the table in the next 2 or 3 years.
Of all the fascinating issues that surround the Web conferencing industry, the one that I find most appealing and fascinating to study is the actual evolution of collaboration systems and the ability of Web conferencing development companies to truly understand and integrate an effective approach to collaboration, which in my view, has to be fundamentally different from what we are being given now.
Last but not least, is the issue of enterprise vs. SOHO market. I myself have long bet and insisted that the enterprise market, nonetheless its attractive capability to shell out large quantities of money at once, is the worst equipped to best understand the potential of this revolution.
It is in my belief the infinite crowd of SOHO users who, without needing twenty signatures and the compliance with idiosyncratic internal policies and politics are going to be the actual cutting edge pioneers and beta testers of the future that is about to come.
In this interview Daniel Shefer of InterWise lends his time and vision to answer some difficult questions I have submitted to him.
Having informally exchanged with him a few times I know for a fact that he has a very keen and detailed overall vision of the industry and that he has been questioning and challenging his own assumptions long enough to have come up with some interesting viewpoints.
I think that he has indeed pinned down many fundamental key points in this interview and his insight and experience offer a very fascinating view of what is indeed to come.
If you have any serious interest in Web conferencing and real-time collaboration this is a must-read.
Thanks Daniel for sharing your far-reaching vision!
1. What kind of tools do you think we will see in a year from now? And in three?
A year from now, from a functionality perspective, I think the tools will be similar to what we have now. AOL will be adding video now that the FCC will allow them to do so but I don't expect anything earth shattering.
We should see some improved integration with Outlook type tools and backend systems in corporate environments that will support user management with the enterprise directory.
We will also see the appearance of proprietary collaboration tools in enterprise applications such as the Oracle and SAP ERP suites. This latter move seems a bit strange for two reasons. The first is that they are inventing the wheel and these tools will be compared with established products and the second reason is that the market will be moving towards standardization sooner or later. So why create your own tool?
Another play that is coming down the bend are the telecoms. They have "seen the light" and are beginning to respond. Some of them are resellers for other companies and others are developing their own tools. From a vendor perspective, there will be a consolidation in the market with smaller vendors either being swallowed by larger companies (see MShow and Contigo) or disappearing. There may be a few smaller companies just lingering around trying to innovate themselves into relevance but by end large, the market will be owned by larger companies.
Three years down the road, the current tools will have become transparent within users' computing environments and cease to be stand-alone programs.
This is conceptually similar to the IE browser being deeply entrenched in the Windows desktop. Users will be able to see if the author of the document they are reading is online and start an instant meeting with them with a click or two.
Somewhere down the road, we should all hope, the collaboration vendors will have resolved their differences regarding standards and the various tools will become fully compatible. This is a critical step before online collaboration tools become ubiquitous. I also hope to see more exciting user interfaces as all the tools today tend to look alike.
It will be interesting!
2. What do you think is the most misunderstood concept in this industry? (That one thing that if done differently would radically change the way think of Web conferencing or real-time collaboration online.)
Ease of use and transparency.
Think about this. When you want to talk with someone, do you invite them to an online meeting or do you call them? I usually start with the latter.
The available collaboration tools are just becoming easy enough to use but they are not as easy as the telephone. There are multiple aspects to this issue. One of them is the simple fact that your telephone rings when someone tries to reach you and can take a message when you're not there to answer. Collaboration tools should be able to do similar things as well. Eventually, the telephone and collaboration tools should be integrated into one suite.
Other examples of improved usability that will help are echo cancellation, smarter microphone management that will automatically identify if you are trying to speak and adjust your microphone and speaker level etc.
The next stage of this will be the integration of presence information and the ability of these systems to follow you. Imagine you have an online meeting scheduled, and you are at your computer, the meeting interface should start up automatically. If you are away from your desk when the meeting starts, the system would dial out to your cell phone. None of this is science fiction; it just has to get done.
The announced integration between Yahoo IM and WebEx and the similar integration between LiveMeeting and MS Messenger are a start.
Exciting things will begin to happen when the products are so reliable, ubiquitous and easy to use that people will be as comfortable with them as they are with their telephones.
3. In which ways are the SOHO and "enterprise" markets substantially different when it comes to Web conferencing, live presentations and real-time collaboration?
The SOHO market is predominantly interested in ease of use and low cost.
To sell into this market, the application has to be have transparent set up, be trivial to use and cheap.
Functionality such as recording and editing or professional services for event management are not as important to the SOHO market as they are to enterprise customers.
The enterprise market is much more concerned with issues such as security, scalability, management as well as recording and editing. Issues such as encryption, network loads and integration with existing backend systems are critical as well. Enterprises will not purchase a system that does not meet their minimum technical requirements no matter the price or ease of use.
In the past few years we have been seeing that mid-level business managers drive the purchase of collaboration systems. They have a pain and they solve it the easiest way they can. Being able to purchase WebEx with a credit card and its ease of use have been big factors in their ability to gain market share. As the market matures, IT departments will be more and more involved in purchasing decisions and the successful collaboration products will have to accommodate that. If we look at WebEx again, today they can get away in large accounts without being integrated to the customer's enterprises user management server but in the future they will have to offer tighter integrations with backend systems.
4. 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 like Interwise have been able to repeatedly scout the best margins in the industry?
The number one problem with the current IM market is that the service is free. In such a market, the IM companies are focusing on market share, not revenue. This entails developing features that are more "cool" than productive.
The only companies generating revenue in the IM market are the ones that make gateways and other tools needed to manage the IM products. Even they are finding it difficult to sell into the enterprise market. IT departments ask themselves "what do we need this headache for?"
In the finance industry, the answer is clear as IM ROI is there but in other industries, the lack of clear ROI has been preventing the widespread adoption of IM systems. In most companies today, the IT department tolerate IM clients if they do not block them in the first place.
In this context, companies such as Interwise and its competitors differ fundamentally from the IM vendors because they offer functionality and services that are critical to drive specific business goals that IM has yet to address. Two examples are distance learning and webcasts for marketing events. Because of this, Interwise's ROI is clear and easy to prove. Higher ROI crates a virtuous circle where revenue supports the development of more business related functionality. It is interesting to note that this can also see this in the interfaces of the respective products. IM clients are all about "cool". The collaboration tools all have clean, functional designs.
5. What do you think is the business model of the future when it comes to real-time collaboration? (Desktop one-time license tools, subscription services, pay per use, donationware, etc.)
From a pricing perspective, companies will offer either two basic models:
1. Per seat or per concurrent license
2. Per minute of usage.
However, things are not as simple as that.
It is straightforward when a company buys a fully hosted environment.
However, when IM and collaboration become ubiquitous in the enterprise and are used massively, companies are not going to be willing to pay anything near what they are paying today.
Take for example the telephone. Companies do not pay for internal calls and will balk at paying for internal collaboration beyond the initial set-up fee. Interwise (my company), has already addressed this with a unique product and pricing model where internal usage is at no additional charge. This is feasible only because of Interwise's ability to use both internally and externally hosted servers in a transparent and secure environment. This is an interesting case where technology is driving the pricing model.
6. Can you name three Web conferencing products, that you have used, and that you think are truly outstanding?
Besides Interwise ECP which is my own product, so it of course it stands above the rest, both WebEx and LiveMeeting have solid offerings. They also have an advantage over some of the smaller players by having significant backing so they will be around in the long term.
Outstanding? Just the concept of using these products on a daily basis is exciting. For perspective, if we go back 3 - 4 years, who could imagine that virtual events would become a business reality? In the long term, Microsoft is poised to do some really cool things by integrating their collaboration tools into Office.
7. What are your thoughts on the collaboration market?
I see several trends:
a. Collaboration tools are becoming a commodity. We will see the tools disappearing into the computing environment. You won't have to go to a website to start an online meeting, this will simply become an option on a drop down menu within another application. When opening a Word document, you will see if the author is online and have an icon that will let you start an IM session with them.
b. Enterprises are slowly waking up to the reality of collaboration tools and the need to address their users' needs in an organized, enterprise-wide fashion. We will see large companies moving from a plethora of products to one or two that are much closer managed.
c. We will continue to see both large and small vendors. The latter will attempt to differentiate themselves based on features or locality. Those that succeed, will stick around. Those that do not will be bought up or disappear.
d. The vendors will finally get around to standardize the tools so they can talk to each other. Today, each product has its own protocols and technologies. Even two T120 compliant applications can't necessarily talk to each other. Compatability will have to happen before we see these tools become truly ubiquitous.
e. The applications will become easier to use. They have come a long way but they are much harder to use than the telephone and that can and has to change..
8. What are your thoughts on the purchase of PlaceWare by Microsoft? How will this affect WebEx?
There is no doubt in my mind that Microsoft will become a very large player in this space. The only question is when and how much effort it will take. Re. WebEx, there are multiple reasons why WebEx will continue to grow for the next couple of years:
The market is still growing. Both WebEx and MS will continue to grow for as far as the eye can see.
Microsoft is fundamentally a product company whereas WebEx is a services company. Microsoft will make the shift but it will take a while for them to "get it".
WebEx has more mind share than Microsoft. They were first to market and they are currently the leaders in the collaboration space. Microsoft can eventually overturn this but it will take time and many millions of dollars to change customers' mindsets.
WebEx has proven themselves to be great at executing. They show no signs of relenting.
One of Microsoft's main value propositions is based on tight integration with Office. It will take Microsoft a long time to fully integrate PlaceWare into Office. They just announced the first Windows Versions what was basically a Unix and Java application. It is full of PlaceWare remnants and still runs on a non-Microsoft backend. A full integration with Office will not be available until the next version of Office is available. This is due in 2 + years (?) .
WebEx is a service. They stress the fact that "no software installation is required". Microsoft wants to sell their servers to enterprise customers. They have to get a true integration with their Office suite to make that happen. The problem is that for the past few years, the growth in this market has been from business line managers who need a tool that they can start using easily. Purchases through IT are hard and slow and because of that enterprise sales through IT departments are not a significant part of the market today. AOL and Yahoo sales into this space are more difficult than expected for this reason. IT's mantra is "what do I need this headache for?" and selling them collaboration tools shows no sign of getting easier anytime soon. This is where WebEx, as a "hosted only" company has an advantage.
There will ALWAYS be companies that will prefer to buy "anything but Microsoft".
Daniel Shefer is an expert in collaboration and communications software, VoIP, video and applied networking. Daniel is currently Director of Product Marketing at Interwise, where he was instrumental in product design and established and managed the product management and the product marketing operations. Daniel has seven years of experience in all aspects of Product Management and Marketing. For more information about Daniel and to read his articles on Product Marketing, see: www.shefer.net. Daniel can be reached at DS_WEB@Spamex.com.