In the past two weeks, I have seen preview demos from two well-known, established web conferencing software vendors who have stable, flexible, powerful webinar products that can handle just about any kind of content and web event interaction my clients might think up. Unfortunately, both products rely on Adobe Flash as the underlying communications/application protocol, so the vendors have been forced to rewrite their webinar products from the ground up using HTML5.
Flash goes away completely in 2020, but many companies have already forbidden it on employee computers because of security concerns. So webcast/webinar vendors have no choice but to rewrite their code using the new communications protocol of choice for the web… HTML5.
I have not been involved in the engineering and programming side of this forced conversion (thank goodness!), but I can tell it’s been a harder struggle than the vendors thought it would be, as announced delivery dates get pushed back further and further, with pieces of functionality promised for “a future release.” This does not bode well for power users who have come to rely on specific features of their favorite products.
What kinds of things are proving the most difficult?
Vendors that previously relied on an upload/convert step to turn PowerPoint slides into Flash animations for display in a conference now need to change this to an HTML5-compatible conversion process. Getting native PowerPoint animations, timings, and slide transition effects to appear properly in the conference is proving tricky. I have seen several vendors effectively give up, telling customers that if they want to show slide decks with effects, they should run them in slide show mode and use screen sharing to display the slides. Maybe the vendors will add the ability to reproduce animations and transitions in their upload/convert process later, maybe not. I have also seen instances of reduced functionality in direct access display of slides outside of a simple “previous/next slide” capability.
Both the vendors I just saw make a selling point of the fact that their Flash-based products can record web conferences not just as “view-only” audio/video files, but as fully interactive replays with the ability for on-demand viewers to do the same things that live attendees can do… Download files, click on interactive hyperlinks, respond to polls, and so on. That is apparently more difficult with the new HTML5 releases, and I’m hearing that it will be a while (if ever) before they can provide the same functionality. Instead, recordings are being captured as simple MP4 video files in their new releases.
Phone/streaming audio integration is also proving tricky for some code rewrites. At least one vendor has banished the phone integration they used to support, requiring presenters and attendees to use only computer audio inputs and outputs. Others seem to have conquered the issue, but users have to deal with long (10-30 second) buffer delays before the audio/video content is seen on attendee computers. This makes quick two-way interactions very difficult.
I have also noticed cases of reduced functionality dealing with chat management and question management in some new HTML5 rewrites. The most common design style I see now is made to look like instant messaging displays that mobile device users are familiar with. I am not a fan of this design style for managing large numbers of simultaneous typed interactions from diverse audience members. I want to retain the ability to delete, copy, paste, highlight, or prioritize individual typed submissions. Some of my preview sessions indicated those capabilities going away.
Then you get into all kinds of specialized functionality that may or may not be supported. Maps, timers, fancy types of polls and graphical displays may be amenable to re-creation in HTML5 and then again, they may not be. I know that in my preview sessions I heard several instances of “not in this first release” and “coming later.” These kinds of compromises and staggered functionality introduction are fine and expected for new products being designed from the ground up, but existing customers are less willing to accept them as dropped functionality in a redesign of something they are already using.
I feel immensely sorry for the affected vendors. They devoted huge numbers of person-hours in development over many years and many release upgrades to get to the current level of sophisticated, advanced functionality. Now the underlying infrastructure has been yanked away, leaving the vendors rushing to re-create their offerings on a platform that wasn’t designed to handle the same capabilities. All while continuing to support and maintain the existing Flash versions. It’s a terrible situation. But sympathy does not mean turning a blind eye to the realities of the situation for customers. If your web conferencing vendor has created a new HTML5 version of their product, test it thoroughly and make sure you know its new set of capabilities and limitations. Make no assumptions that things will work just the same as they had.