I had a chance to talk to the Cisco product marketing manager for their Unified Communications group. Mike Fratesi took me through their web conferencing components as part of the larger unified communications product set. Cisco is a strong believer in the integrated voice/data/web technology vision. They have some very fancy telephone presence detection using their dedicated installed hardware. The web conferencing piece is primarily targeted at internal collaborative meetings rather than external formal webinars. For instance, they don't support an integrated event registration facility. The software itself comes in two flavors. Cisco MeetingPlace Enterprise has plugins to permit easy group scheduling from enterprise calendaring programs like Outlook. It also ties in to telephone presence and audio conferencing through Cisco's voice networking. MeetingPlace Express is their "simple, powerful conferencing" solution, using Flash technology for install-free browser based conferences. That sounds good, and when Mike started showing me the interface I suddenly realized it was Macromedia Breeze! Cisco OEM'd the software, added some bells and whistles for integration with their networking products and took out the registration stuff. So you get all the standard Breeze functionality inside a web conference, using the Macromedia configurable "pods."
Another Michael collared me between sessions. Michael Rozlog is VP of Product Management for Convenos. Convenos is a web conferencing vendor that announced a new pricing model while they were at the show, allowing companies to hold unlimited meetings for the ridiculously low price of $30/month or $300/year. That has its limitations, of course. The price is for one named host (presenter) with audience sizes of no more than 25 people per event. There is higher pricing for their Convenos Meeting Center Professional Edition, which supports audience sizes of 99 or less. That's still not enough capacity to handle big outbound public events like marketing presentations or public communications, so we are talking about an obvious focus on the smaller group meeting space. The software also depends on Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer, so it's not going to be the choice for presentations to the world at large where you can't guarantee your participants' work platforms.
I had a great time tossing ideas back and forth with Michael about the differences in communication and interaction styles that occur in a web conference as opposed to a live or telephone meeting. He said something very interesting and unusual for a product vendor in this area... He told me he was frustrated with how little the fundamentals of web conferencing had evolved since the earliest days of Placeware and WebEx. Sure, bandwidth and connection speeds have increased, allowing more rich content. Sure, companies have improved features like annotation, Q&A, and polling. But they are all incremental evolutionary changes. Where's the big innovation that wows people with a revolutionary new piece of functionality?
I certainly don't know the answer to the question. Software and technology pundits never guess about application usage properly until some clever entrepreneur bakes up a combination of vision, execution, and business savvy to bring it to an unsuspecting public. I still remember when personal computers started gaining notice and the prevailing wisdom was that home users would want them for balancing their checkbooks. Who was talking about global instantaneous search crawling on a worldwide network of web pages and blogs? Who was foreseeing an entire generation addicted to instant messaging and email (spawning a new vocabulary and phonetically abbreviated language that would have floored the old Western Union telegram authors)?
I'm going to keep my eye on Convenos and see whether Michael's interest in innovation can translate into new Wow technology offerings.