WebEx has been quietly rolling out an update to its web collaboration software. I'm not entirely sure of which versions it includes… I know it definitely impacts Meeting Center and Event Center, and my best guess is that it would spill over to Training Center and Support Center as well.
Rowan Trollope is Senior VP and General Manager of the Collaboration Technology Group at Cisco. He wrote a blog post about the new release yesterday, which seems to be the only official announcement from Cisco. There is no press release with details. The company obviously prepped certain industry journalists, as I saw several articles about the upgrade cross the wires yesterday. (You can find them on my Industry News Page in the lower section dedicated to "News Stories.")
The key addition to the WebEx product lineup is a new add-on option for Meeting Center users. You can set up "Collaboration Meeting Rooms" that are easy-access, always available, and dedicated to a single host for quick, ad hoc web meetings using a single link ID. There is no need to start a session and find out the random ID number WebEx has assigned you. I get the usefulness of that for personal collaboration, but it is not my area of focus. So I will go back to looking at the new release's impacts on the traditional Meeting Center and Event Center uses.
Some of the industry articles I have read refer to improvements in VoIP audio quality, which is welcome but hard to confirm or refute through just a few first-hand experiences. Other aspects are easier to see and objectively analyze. Here are some of my thoughts on the new interface:
1) The new interface is certainly more in line with current software interface design style. It will look better on mobile devices and small screens. Key operational buttons now get big and obvious icons (click the image to get a larger view of the new console. Observe the new bigger icons for "Participants", "Chat", and "Recorder" at upper right.)
2) The Chat window is no longer open by default when an attendee joins a session (both Event Center and Meeting Center). This seems trivial, but turns out to be a step backward in functionality. Attendees who are new to web conferencing (yes, they still exist and I work with them all the time) don't know where to look on that busy screen, filled with icons around every border. Even when the Chat icon turns a different color, they don't always think to click it. That means a host cannot greet new attendees with a welcome or instructional chat message and know that it has been seen. The Chat panel should be open upon startup, as it was previously.
3) The slide navigation arrows are now harder to use. This threw me at first, as the size of the arrows is exactly the same in the old and new interfaces. I'm talking about this icon area, centered above the slide display:
I couldn't figure out why I was having so much trouble quickly moving to a new slide in the updated interface. It turns out that the previous interface had an active area for clicking that surrounded the arrow in an invisible square. If you clicked anywhere generally in the area of the arrow, it moved the slide. In the new interface, the only active portion of the icon is the arrow itself. So you have to place your cursor precisely on the few tiny pixels that make up the small arrow icon. It is very difficult to rapidly switch your cursor position from elsewhere on the screen to hit the proper spot. Frustrating, and a significant step backwards in end user convenience and ease of use.
4) The meeting number is no longer displayed in a status bar at the bottom of the console window. I'm guessing that goes along with the new direction for Collaborative Meeting Rooms, where meetings don't have individual ID numbers. But in traditional meetings, it's just a touch less convenient for me as a host/moderator if I need to give someone the meeting ID to help them join when they have login difficulties. I have to open the Meeting Information submenu in the command bar to find the meeting number. This isn't a big deal and doesn't affect the average user very much.
My biggest complaint about the new release isn't what they changed, but what they DIDN'T address. I reviewed a post I wrote in June where I summarized six long-standing frustrations with WebEx feature quirks. Of the six, the only one updated in the current release is the addition of an in-session option for enabling/disabling entry and exit tones for attendees:
That is available in Meeting Center, but not in Event Center. In an Event, if you chose the wrong tone setting when you scheduled your event, you are stuck… There is still no way to change it in the session.
I am a bit disappointed in this upgrade. It feels like a quick re-skinning of the same old functionality, and a few of the re-skinning decisions have negative consequences. Cisco can and should do better.