It feels like the time is right for another of my infrequent and unscheduled reflections on what is going on in the web conferencing industry. Everything expressed here is my personal opinion only.
In no particular order of priority, here are some of the things I have been thinking about of late:
1) The “web conferencing” umbrella term has swung back towards peer-to-peer meetings as its primary public face. Webinars and webcasts still exist and are still powerful tools for business. But media articles, press releases, and vendor awareness campaigns are currently focused on group participation more than presentation use cases.
A few vendors are bucking this trend:
ON24 is still strongly committed to promoting the presentation and marketing “web events” view of web collaboration. Their recent Webinar World conference had a strong orientation towards online events.
As I recently reported, omNovia Technologies just released FLOW, which is explicitly stated as NOT supporting peer-level web meetings.
Adobe Connect has moved to the Digital Learning Solutions portion of the Adobe website. I was told that they don’t really see themselves in the ad hoc meeting space anymore and have decided to concentrate on increasing their strong foothold in educational use cases.
PGi, Cisco, and LogMeIn are coasting along with their suites of products covering both presentation/event use cases and peer meeting use cases, but I am seeing more press emphasis on the latter at the moment.
2) Vendors are pushing the use of web conferencing as a replacement or adjunct to dedicated video room or huddle room remote meeting spaces for enterprises. Any enterprise that has already sunk money into a connected meeting room is a well-qualified prospect with both interest and budget for meeting solutions. So it makes sense to market aggressively towards that demographic. Zoom, LogMeIn, Webex Meetings, and other meeting-oriented web solutions have been ramping up the video collaboration aspects of their solutions and have introduced features designed to supplement point-to-point videoconferencing hardware solutions.
Right now, this is tied in very firmly with observation #1… The dedicated meeting room is seen as a space primarily for in-house collaboration. Someone is eventually going to recognize the value in promoting the use of that same space as a “mini broadcast studio” for presentation use cases as well. This will enable vendors to rebalance or expand how they promote their web conferencing products to get marketing, training, and outbound communication experiences back into the mix. So far, I haven’t seen any public mention of this scenario.
3) UCC and UCaaS are back with a vengeance. If you aren’t familiar with those abbreviations, just focus on “UC” as the important part. Vendors have been pushing “Unified Communications” for the past 20 years as a silver bullet that will make business more efficient and show huge ROI for adopters. It’s a gleaming vision of riches for any supplier who can make it stick… Imagine entire employee populations running your various connected applications on phone, desktop, and mobile devices while being locked into your integration of voice, data, email, calendaring, meeting, and text.
I remain cynical of anything that requires 20 years of trying to convince prospects that they have a problem that needs solving. The truth is that most employees don’t WANT to be that connected, 24-hours a day, without a break. The ability to transition their work smoothly from device to device and application to application is not as much of a draw for them as users as it is for the vendors trying to push it. But recent press releases, conferences, and media articles show a renewed marketing emphasis on positioning web conferencing products as part of an integrated UC solution strategy. This is part of the reason for observation #1… Web meetings fit the UC story while web events don’t fit into that framework.
4) Vendor concentration on universal access to web meetings will temporarily reduce solution quality, flexibility, and capability. I have written quite a bit about the transition from Flash to HTML5 that many vendors have been forced into. HTML5 simply doesn’t have the flexibility and capabilities that Flash had (which were exactly what opened it to security vulnerabilities). So some web conferencing functionality will be lost for power users. Hopefully that will be temporary as the HTML5 standard continues to develop and clever coding teams find new approaches.
A second problem is that nobody uses a hardwired internet connection anymore. Mobile devices and many laptops now don’t even have Ethernet ports. When the device does have the capability, it’s getting hard to find a cable drop in anything other than a commercial enterprise office. Everyone expects to be able to enjoy the convenience and universal access of wireless internet. But the state of that technology is not universally stable or powerful enough to handle the needs of high speed two-way voice, data, and video integration that modern web conferences want to deliver. The result is audio dropouts, video buffering and stuttering, temporary freezes, and even forced reconnects for meeting participants. Not for all of them, and not all at once. But someone out there is sure to have network congestion or speed issues that result in a bad experience.
In the short term, the only practical way for vendors to get around this issue is to buffer the communications stream, which removes the goal of real-time two-way communication and collaboration. In the long term, this is going to require fundamental changes to the transport infrastructure - such as mesh networks in big cities and general widespread adoption of 5G networks. Neither is going to be common this year.
The third problem is not going to be soluble. We are just starting to see the effects, but it may lead to the sharpest drop in power and functionality over the long term. As vendors race to support smooth UC integration and universal access from mobile devices, they have to simplify operation of their applications. Controls need to be visible on small screens and accessible with big fat finger presses instead of fine-grained mouse movements. Screen space is at a premium for content. Power users want access to multiple pieces of content at once… Slides, chat streams, participant video, Twitter feeds, and so on. Presenters and hosts want even more, with private chat windows, analytics, muting controls, etc. How do you allow for all that on a smartphone display? Users will have to choose which piece to bring up at any given time. This will necessarily result in less power and flexibility than product designs that assumed meeting participants would be chained to their office desks, looking at nice big desktop monitors.
5) Web conferencing should get a short-term public perception boost this year. This is the most tenuous of my crystal ball guesses, as it is not based on a current trend. If Zoom goes public as is generally expected in the financial press (perhaps as early as March/April?), I think it could be a high profile IPO with the potential for short term rapid growth. That would reflect well on the entire industry and could make users and potential customers feel more comfortable with increased use or adoption. It would also generate more mentions in the media outside of our usual technology channels. We’ll see if any of that actually plays out.
As always, I encourage you to contribute in the comments section with your own impressions of the marketplace, technology trends, or guesses about where things might be going. Considering different perspectives benefits all of us!