I just finished watching Microsoft's presentation on their 12-month roadmap for Unified Communications. There was precious little emphasis or news about Microsoft Office Live Meeting, or the ways it will compare and contrast with Office Communicator 2007, which will also boast some web conferencing capabilities.
They did announce that enhancements for Live Meeting are focused on making it better for e-Learning, simplifying deployment, improving IP audio, and adding support for rich media such as video streams and Flash movies. They also reinforced its prominence as a key part of the Unified Communications product suite triumvirate along with Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Commnunicator 2007. The big availability push for the suite in general (not necessarily applicable to a Live Meeting individual version release) is mid-year in 2007. That's a long time from now in software terms, so I hope they are planning to do some interim releases on Live Meeting in the meantime.
That's our primary focus in this forum, although there was plenty of other stuff covered in the close to 2-hour presentation. Many other journalists will be reporting on the main integrated communications philosophy. The vision is not new... allow easy integration of voice communication with instant messaging, web conferencing, email, and file sharing. Microsoft is putting a big emphasis on "presence" based software. The idea is to give people an identity in a master directory that allows contact with them through whatever channel is most appropriate or available at the time with a simple name lookup tied to their availability status. No remembering multiple screen names, email addresses, and telephone numbers.
One product they demonstrated (also planned for mid-2007 availability) is called Microsoft Office RoundTable. This is an interesting hardware/software combo that acts as a webcam on steroids for use in web meetings. The camera sits in the middle of the room on a stalk and has a 360-degree field of vision. It transforms the image of the people in the room into a panoramic strip picture showing them all sitting in a line. When a person begins speaking, the camera focuses on the speaker for a closeup image in the speaker video window. Very cute. Of course there are unavoidable questions of practicality in my mind (unasked and unanswered in their demo, but after all, this is still a pre-release concept demo!). If you have a long rectangular table, how does the panoramic assembly account for the different apparent size and focus range on the people closer and farther from the lens? What happens to the automatic speaker select function when people's voices overlap? There was one point in their demo where the camera seemed fixated on a potted palm in a corner of the room, which may have been the strongest reflection point of the speakerphone audio when the person on the other end of the line was speaking.
On a side note, I have to wonder what the marketing folks were smoking when deciding on their demo subject. They went into a long and involved sample meeting scenario with a group trying to decide on what food to order for lunch... Thai or pizza. They even mentioned Round Table pizza by name to get the clever tie-in, although I'd be interested in whether they worked out usage agreements with the existing trademarked product name before assigning it to their own product.
As far as the presentation itself went, it was clearly designed primarily for the local in-room audience and secondarily for the web viewing audience. I have my display set to 1280x1024 resolution with full 32-bit color display. Images still seemed fuzzy and hard to read. Screen shots were impossible to interpret. I am on a cable modem broadband connection and I had some trouble with buffering the stream, getting some stops and starts in the presentation.
Here are some other random presentation and speaking points that came to mind as I watched:
- They had a nice scrolling slideshow running while waiting for the main event to begin. It included some polling questions, followed by summary results and comments. But there was no indication of the source of the results. Whenever you show summary statistics you owe it to the audience to tell them who is represented in the sample set and when it was done.
- The main speaker (Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division) did a good job of keeping his voice animated and speaking to the crowd. He overused "I thought" and "We thought" as a preface to concepts. A speaker should be as declarative as possible.
- Both Jeff and co-presenter Anoop Gupta used the word "seamlessly" about once every 30 seconds. This is the latest overused buzzword in the tech industry and it needs to be hunted down and stomped out of existence. You show me where the possibility for "seams" lies first... Then I'll let you tell me how you do it seamlessly instead.
- Comedy is best left to professional comedians, acting to professional actors, script writing to professional script writers. We are an incredibly sophisticated society when it comes to consuming professional entertainment. Our expectations are very high because of constant exposure to television shows, movies, commercials, and other intricately produced entertainment products. Every time the Microsoft team launched into a live acted out scenario featuring cheesy laugh lines, wooden actors, and theatrics (eg: a woman sitting in a chair pretending to drive a car with her arms up in front of her moving an imaginary steering wheel back and forth), things slowed to a painful crawl. Say what you have to say. You can do it!
- Watch out for overly complex demo scenarios or those that emphasize story line over the takeaway points for the audience. The team spent so long discussing the merits of Thai food versus pizza that the fact of the virtual meeting and the RoundTable camera was almost lost. The audience was led to care about the resolution of the silly demo argument instead of the technology being used to solve it.
So there it is. I was hoping for more on the Live Meeting front, but it looks like we'll just have to wait for the next release as usual before seeing any specifics.