I have seen several news stories picking up on a recent announcement from Cisco about enhancements to their business collaboration offerings. But nobody seemed to follow up on a paragraph in the press release that almost off-handedly mentioned new releases of Cisco’s WebEx products across the board. I got a briefing from Grace Kim, the Senior Manager of Marketing for the Collaboration Software Group at Cisco. Grace took me through some of the new functionality in the product set. Unfortunately I have not yet had a chance to play with the new release, so I can’t report on the implementation and user experience of these enhancements. Different enhancements apply to the four primary members of the WebEx family: Meeting Center, Event Center, Training Center, and Support Center.
The new functionality comes in Release 27 of the WebEx products. We already knew about WebEx’s support for Meeting Center attendance from an Apple iPhone, but they have announced additional browser-based meeting access from a variety of additional mobile devices. This is supposed to become available in the third calendar quarter. It’s a change of direction from the current iPhone implementation, which uses a device-specific client application as the front end. The new access method is supposed to work on operating systems from BlackBerry, Nokia, S60, Windows Mobile and relies on the devices’ web browsing capability. Note that this is still limited to Meeting Center conferences and won’t support the advanced functionality found in Event Center or Training Center sessions.
Those other products did get a small nod to the mobile world with a new ability to send invitations to mobile users to join an open meeting. The host can send a text message (SMS) that allows mobile users to listen to the audio portion of the meeting on their phone by clicking the link. This is a bundled service for customers using WebEx Audio in their meetings.
Another subtle change for users of Meeting Center and Training Center makes it easier and more convenient for attendees to switch back and forth between computer audio and telephone audio during a meeting. That extra convenience is always appreciated.
All four products got a boost in international access convenience. Invitations include a link to view meeting details in other time zones and languages, and organizers can take advantage of a cross-reference table that shows times across a number of selected cities to make it easier to pick a time that works for residents of all the given time zones. They also added Italian to their list of languages supported in the products.
There was a cosmetic change to the floating icon tray that lets hosts and attendees perform functions such as chat or annotation while in full screen mode. If you run screen sharing you now have the option to pause display of your screen without pulling yourself out of screen sharing mode.
Network Based Recording (NBR) also came in for some upgrades, with some enhancements to the setup wizard, addition of a pause button (yay!), and the ability to record presenter video even if there are no attendees. Speaking of video, there were a few enhancements to the management of live video including the ability for attendees to pause their video in a meeting.
Event Center came in for a few big changes. There is now an optional Flash-based attendee interface to complement the existing client-installed application. That is big news and most welcome. Presenters must still run the client application. They also added some new information that presenters and hosts can see during a meeting. There is an “attention indicator” that basically looks at whether attendees have their keyboard focus in the meeting window. I am a bit cynical about the value of this functionality, but you don’t have to pay attention to it! Of more obvious use is the ability to display a registration lead score and company name next to attendee names so you can decide which people in your marketing webinar get kid glove treatment and which ones get ignored. Along with this is one of my favorite features: The ability for hosts and presenters to assign priorities to questions. This makes it much easier for moderators to read off questions that the speakers really want to answer. You can also mark questions to indicate which ones were answered during your live Q&A session and which need additional follow up. And finally, you can track link source ID’s in programs of events and for viewers of recordings. Very nice.
Training Center’s product-specific upgrades include the same attention indicator mentioned above, along with a new client interface for Macintosh users. They added the ability to predefine breakout sessions and pre-assign attendees to groups so that you can break a class into discussion groups instantly during the session. For customers holding fee-based training, there are also improvements to the eCommerce support for US and UK payment systems.
Support Center now has a multi-session client, telephony support, co-browsing, custom executable scripts, and enhanced click-to-connect options. This product is the most technical of the bunch, and customers using it will want to get IT and WebEx support talking to ensure that they are taking advantage of the programmatic aspects.
As well as the four collaboration products, WebEx threw a few enhancements into their associated productivity tools. These are the utilities that help users start and schedule meetings, invite participants, handle installation, and integrate with other applications. There is integration with third-party identity management to allow single sign-on, an enhanced WebEx toolbar for Microsoft Office and web browsers, integration with iGoogle to let users join a meeting, and integration with Outlook and Lotus Notes.
Finally, WebEx says they now support four additional flavors of Linux and the Google Chrome browser.
That’s a heck of a lot of new development for the market share leader in web conferencing. I’d say it deserves a little more attention than a single bullet point in a press release!