Lately I have had several webinar technology vendors ask for my take on the current and near-future status of the webinar/webcast market. It seems like a good time to reflect on the state of the industry.
From a technology standpoint, it is no great revelation that we are in a period of conversion from Flash to HTML5 for the majority of hosted (or cloud-based) webinar products. By the end of the year, I expect to see every hosted technology relying on HTML5, usually with WebRTC handling the underlying real-time communication load. Flash may still be supported as a backup access method for users on non-compliant web browsers, but that should be a relatively short-lived legacy crossover. Flash is just going to disappear quietly into the night, little loved and less lamented in its dotage, while people forget how revolutionary and freeing it was at the beginning of its life.
The big question is whether real-time screen sharing will run effectively for large audience sizes in a true HTML5/WebRTC implementation. So far, most webinar technologies have required presenters to install a local client executable for showing their screen in a webinar. Can we get away from that need? One vendor wrote to me privately and said they have it licked, but I'm still waiting to see it in action.
Market definition is taking a page from politics… More and more polarization, with less tolerance for compromise. There are a few big, expensive webinar/webcast products that are feature-rich and flexible enough to handle multiple use cases and multiple types of content in enterprise business use. On the other end of the spectrum are products with fewer features and less flexibility, competing primarily on price. The vendors and products in the middle of the range are the ones with the biggest problem as they get squeezed between not being cheap enough and not being seen as "safe" for widespread enterprise use.
Marc Beattie recently posted an article on The Wainhouse Research Blog in which he examines standalone audio conferencing and what he refers to as Personal Web-based Conferencing (PWC). This category encompasses peer-based meetings through products such as iMeet, GoToMeeting, and dozens more. He points out that PWC in the USA is growing in volume, but declining in revenue as vendors race each other to find a bottom point on pricing. Under the current model, I think we are headed towards the eventual elimination of fee-based web meeting products. Vendors will offer simple web meeting products as free loss-leaders to capture market share and hopefully get users locked into using their more expensive products for scaled-up use cases.
This divergence in price/performance is already creating negative effects for vendors when it comes to supporting more structured web events, and the problem is going to get much worse. Users who start with simple PWC web meeting products are being conditioned to think of web collaboration as a free (or at least, minimal cost) service. When they move from holding a simple ad hoc web meeting to hosting a webinar, they expect the same low-cost/no-cost model. "It's just something that runs on the web… Why should I pay for that?"
Vendors have to justify licensing costs for their webinar/webcast products by pointing to features, features, and more features - almost always showing up as in-session interactivity functionality. We end up with overstuffed products containing marginally useful options that never get refined and stabilized, since development effort continually has to be funneled towards the next shiny new addition.
The things that make a product truly superior in business use often aren't "sexy" or even apparent… How reliable and consistent is operation on the dozens of different devices, operating systems, and web browser versions in use around the world? How good and accessible is technical support and documentation? How smooth is screen sharing display? How is the quality of received audio for attendees? How well integrated is telephony and computer audio, and what are the options for international phone access? How is video quality maintained for users on slow or inconsistent wi-fi connections? What is the audio/video quality in event recordings, and how good is the reliability and access to the recording? How useful are post-event reports for actual analysis work, and do they require lots of manual data manipulation?
It takes a lot of dedicated software engineering, rigorous stress testing, and hiring of skilled support personnel to differentiate on those "hidden" quality elements, and since they aren't the factors that tend to sway purchase decisions for inexperienced users, they are the hardest to justify from the vendor's perspective. That's why products like ON24 and Adobe Connect tend to concentrate on enterprise sales in high-volume applications, where IT-savvy purchasing agents make a centralized technology decision for all users in the company. In those cases, the revenue return justifies the investment by the vendor.
I am seeing a growing trend in add-on pricing as a solution strategy for mid-range webinar vendors. This is analogous to what we are seeing in the airline industry. Your basic licensing fee gets you a live webinar. If you want additional recording features, you pay more. If you want additional branding or reporting customization, you pay more. If you want premium support, you pay more. It makes sense from the vendor's perspective, but it can have a negative psychological effect on users. It feels like a "bait and switch" where you see one price and then find out that you'll actually have to pay more for the things that act as differentiators and allow you to work the way you want to. I don't like it myself, but we'll see more of it this year rather than less.
Finally, we come to the issue of vendor consolidation. This is a perpetual process and it will continue as it has for the last decade. I think we are past the point where the big guys are buying technology. There aren't that many revolutionary technology plays left in the webinar space. Instead, they are buying customer lists and eliminating pesky competition.
I think the spin-off we recently saw when Citrix divested its collaboration products and sold them to LogMeIn may be repeated at other vendors where standalone web collaboration doesn't fit in with the rest of the company's business. I would not be surprised to see Cisco sell WebEx to someone else or cease licensing the standalone versions… I get no sense that Cisco is interested in growing and developing the Meeting Center, Event Center, and Training Center products… They are incidental to the big picture idea of unified communications and collaboration that Cisco has pursued for years (currently marketed under the Cisco Spark banner). On a side note, if Zoom doesn't get bought up soon, I will be astonished.
Okay, that's enough crystal ball work for now. Agree? Disagree? Think I overlooked an important trend? Add your thoughts in a comment. I review comments before publishing them in an attempt to eliminate spam, so yours might not show up for a bit after you submit it. But I love hearing from you!