And so we once again come back to a favorite blog topic… Is there any difference between a webcast product and a webinar product? And if so, can it be defined?
Let's set aside the literal root word semantics of a webcast being analogous to a TV telecast or a radio broadcast… a one-way distribution of content to a consuming audience. Those still exist in some instances (such as sporting events or fashion shows), but in business use and conferencing vendor strategies, webcast products have become just as feature-rich as webinar products, allowing audience typed chat, polling, and other interactive elements. And webinar products can easily carry full streaming video and reach large audience sizes, so those are no longer useful differentiators. I have watched as vendors went back and forth, billing their collaboration products under first one designation and then the other.
I finally decided that the ultimate distinction between a webinar product and a webcasting product comes down to whether there is an expectation that the audience is communicating and collaborating in real time with the presenter. If so, you are working with a webinar technology. If the audio/video stream is buffered and fed out to the audience on a delay, it's a webcast technology.
The difference in experiences is significant. Even as little as a five-second delay between presentation and reception changes the nature of the interaction. In a webinar, I can ask for quick responses from participants and work those responses into the flow of my presentation:
- "Type YES if this has ever happened to you."
- "Oops, I pulled my headset cable, can you still hear me?"
- "George, did that answer your question?"
But in a webcast, I have to ask for audience response and then keep moving on with something else, coming back to their responses later. I can't afford to wait for my words to make it to their computer and then for their responses to show up on my console (some - not all - webcast technologies buffer audience submissions or grab them every so often, so that a presenter may not see them show up for a while).
I am concerned about the move from Flash technology to HTML5/WebRTC as the underlying enabler for many cloud-based web conferencing products. At least one vendor has told me that the transition is going to mean changing from real-time synchronous reception of the presented audio and video to "a small delay" as they construct and encode the stream for transmission. I readily admit that I am not savvy enough to know whether this is generally true for everybody using the technology or if it is just one vendor's implementation. If it's a technology limitation, we are going to see a lot of webinar products suddenly behaving like webcast products. And that's going to mean retraining presenters to interact effectively with their audiences. Of course the "fat client" products that download and install on participant computers won't be affected.
I would love to get some comments from my more technical readers on whether HTML5 and WebRTC can support true synchronous audio/video transmission for large audiences. I'm fairly sure it can handle it for two-party peer to peer communications, but supporting a constant ongoing stream to multiple parties may be a different kettle of fish.