BigMarker put out a press release today trumpeting their webinar platform as the first one based on WebRTC to allow a 1000 participant capacity. This deserves some reflection, as platform talk has been heating up recently.
It's easy to get down in the weeds very fast when talking about underlying technology platforms. This blog isn't the right forum to try to dig into coding and implementation details, so I won't even try. But it's useful to at least summarize the web conferencing technology situation at a high level for context.
For this particular discussion, I will make no distinction between "webinars," "webcasts," and "web conferences." Consider the terms interchangeable here (but not elsewhere!).
The first approach to web conferencing implementation uses "client applications." In order to take part in a webinar, presenters and attendees download a program, install it on their personal computer, and run it at show time. WebEx and GoToWebinar are two well-known examples of this methodology. The main disadvantages are a need to create versions for different operating systems, a need for users to update and reinstall the software (leading to potential version conflicts), and security concerns in some organizations that don't allow employees to download and install software on company workstations.
In an attempt to get around the download/install frustrations, some vendors went to "in-browser" web conferencing. In this scenario, the conferencing software is never installed on a user's hard drive. Standard web browsers give access to communications and display of materials. The software needs help from third-party technologies to make it work. These have progressed from Active/X and Java to the current favorite for many vendors: Adobe Flash. (It is also worth noting that many of these products still require presenters to load a local client application before starting screen sharing.)
It turns out that relying on those communication and display technologies opened up new frustrations. The big vendors supplying the underlying platforms (Sun, Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe) could change the way they worked at any time. Vendors would have to scramble to stay current and make sure their software worked with the latest version of Flash or Java, while hopefully still working with the older versions some users still had. Security has again emerged as a major headache, with some organizations not allowing their employees to run Flash applications in their browsers.
In fact, just this week we saw another high-profile news story following a tweet from the Chief Security Officer at Facebook:
Because Flash acts as a gateway between the web and the local device, it has proved vulnerable to security hacks, and Adobe keeps releasing new updates in reaction to discovered holes.
For many in the web conferencing community, the new beacons of hope are HTML5 and WebRTC. Each includes functionality specifically designed to facilitate real time communications through web browsers without additional third-party programs. But the technologies are still developing and are not supported on all browsers and devices. So we are definitely in a state of flux.
BigMarker's decision to put their eggs firmly in the WebRTC basket is a bold one. It limits the choices that users have in web browsers (Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari are currently not supported). Even users with the required Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox browsers could potentially face security barriers in their organization… I have seen some threads on the internet where people are concerned that WebRTC exposes their IP address and potentially other local data. They have developed add-ons to disable WebRTC in the browsers, which will kill BigMarker conferencing along with any other WebRTC applications.
I am quite interested in BigMarker's business model for their application. They are a relative latecomer to the web conferencing space, founded a mere five years ago. This gave them the opportunity to design for the new technologies without having to worry about legacy code. That could be a leg up on the competition, but it also means they are forced to cope with the inevitable restrictions and limitations that new technologies have. For instance, screen sharing still requires a separate applet to be installed in Chrome, and it is not supported in Firefox at all. Uploaded PowerPoints are converted to static images (and the company recommends converting your PowerPoint to a PDF document for best display in a webinar). So screen sharing is the way to go if you require animations or screen transition effects. Mobile device support is still in final testing mode and not yet available to the public.
But there is a lot to like. The software allows hosts to charge attendees for events if desired. Recordings are automatic and instantly available after a live event. A community of users allows webinar hosts to publicize their events using categories and keywords to help drive awareness and registration.
BigMarker is going to act as a great early indicator of strengths and weaknesses in the new HTML5 and WebRTC world of web conferencing. As such, it goes on my list as an important company to watch.