Yesterday I saw a press release from AnyMeeting announcing version 4.0 of their web conferencing platform for small group meetings. The big news is that it uses WebRTC and promises no degradation in performance as the number of participants increases. I was intrigued and had a talk with Costin Tuculescu, the CEO and founder of AnyMeeting. We used the new platform so I could see it in practice.
Costin told me that early adopters have been exercising the new version for a couple of months, so the announcement does not indicate a beta or untested release. My first question was whether the new platform applied to AnyMeeting's webinar products or was only implemented for the meeting-oriented software. He confirmed that this announcement only applied to meetings (covering up to 30 participants). He expects the WebRTC implementation to transfer over to their larger-capacity and more feature-rich webinar solutions in the not-too-distant future.
One of the chief problems for WebRTC group collaboration is that the technology standard was originally designed to accommodate two-party peer-to-peer communications. It can get bogged down when trying to coordinate audio-video streams between many simultaneous participants. I'm going to brutally oversimplify AnyMeeting's approach to the problem, but it's easiest to visualize it by thinking of a centralized server acting as one party in the communication. So there is no physical "presenter broadcasting to an audience" using a one-to-many data stream. Each participant carries on a one-to-one collaboration with the server, which immediately replicates that conversation in a one-to-one fashion with each other participant. It's a "hub and spoke" configuration where no two participants are physically connected in a WebRTC two-way link, even though they get that impression.
I don't concentrate on following and reporting on peer-group web meeting products because there are so many on the market, and features tend to be less diverse and interesting than in webinar/webcast products. AnyMeeting fulfilled my expectations in this regard. Costin said that simplicity of use and quality of the communication experience was their top priority. So you get the ability to have a simple group text chat with lots of emoji icons, mimicking a mobile phone messaging panel. You can share your computer desktop to show your screen to other participants, or you can show an uploaded PDF, a PowerPoint file (which gets converted to a series of static images in PDF format), or an uploaded video clip. Up to 6 webcam feeds can show participant video simultaneously.
Screen sharing performance was pretty good. It runs at 4 frames per second, which is enough to show fade-in animations of small items on a PowerPoint slide, but is not fast enough to keep up with smooth thumb scrolling or wipes of entire screens. Audio-video synchronization was very good in our tests. I tested my audio on computer and on telephone, with no troubling lags through either channel.
I was very impressed by the uploaded video playback. Quality was very good, but more importantly, Costin could pause the video at any time and we both saw the exact same paused frame. Many technologies have a hard time keeping all video players in sync.
The press release indicated that audio is streamed at 48K for high quality sound, but it turned out to be the aspect that left me dissatisfied. I heard volume fluctuations as Costin spoke. He thought this might have been caused by WebRTC's automatic use of echo cancelation and gain control. If so, it represents an area that needs work.
Meeting 4.0 runs in all WebRTC compliant browsers and through dedicated free apps for Android and iOS mobile devices. Meeting participants using non-compliant browsers fall back to the previous Flash-based system and must use telephone audio rather than VoIP.
I'll come back and do a more thorough examination of AnyMeeting when they upgrade their webinar solutions, since that is the focus of this blog. But I thought it was worth highlighting the current WebRTC implementation during this difficult industry transition period.