For those that might be new to web conferencing, there are few key items to consider before leaping to specific vendor solutions or before you go too far down the road of requirements gathering. Understanding some of these concepts below will enable you to better frame your effort and ask more specific questions re: business needs.
- Market structure
- Usage models
- Pricing models
- Convergence trends
Understand the market structure
It's important to understand some of the industry dynamics influencing how web conferencing technology is evolving. There are a variety of ways to segment players in this market. Some might even argue that web conferencing is not a distinct market structure. And I would not strongly disagree with that perspective - it's a debate on timing. As communication and collaboration services become components within a larger platform, it's difficult to see how web conferencing as something that has a distinct market boundary. However, if you are relatively new to this space and do not have a clear knowledge of its history, then some type of market / vendor segmentation can be helpful. As background, my coverage of web conferencing began in 1996. Below is one way to look at how vendors are positioned:
Conferencing Service Providers: CSP's are vendors whose business framework is premised on a SaaS delivery model where web conferencing is the primary focus. It is likely that a CSP will offer additional capabilities in terms of audio, video, integration with instant messaging systems and mobile support. Vendors in this category include: Adobe, Cisco (WebEx) Citrix, Genesys Conferencing, IBM (WebDialogs), InterCall (Raindance), and Microsoft. It is important to note that a CSP might represent one business unit for a vendor that also delivers solutions in other market segments. For instance, Adobe, Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft all deliver on-premises solutions for web conferencing in addition to a business area that behaves as a CSP.
Communication Carriers: Telecommunication companies often repackage technology from one or more CSP vendors under their own brand. The repackaging often includes a customized front-end and a unified back-end administration and billing system that integrates with what the carrier is offering to its customers as part of an overall voice/data solution. AT&T for instance is an example of a vendor that resells services from both Cisco (WebEx) and Microsoft but also sells its own solution based on its acquisition of Interwise.
Enterprise Software Vendors: On-premises web conferencing is also offered by large-scale vendors that deliver collaboration platforms. Vendors such as Adobe, IBM (Sametime), Microsoft (Office Communications Server), Novell (Sitescape), and Oracle fall into this category.
Communication & Networking Vendors: Vendors that primarily focus on telephony, audio conferencing and video conferencing also typically offer web conferencing systems as well. Vendors such as Avaya, Cisco (Latitude), Nortel and Polycom are examples of players in this category.
Specialists: There are vendors in the market that focus on specific solutions that generally fall into the web conferencing domain but might emphasize a particular function, such as screen/desktop sharing or application sharing or remote control. A vendor like Glance Networks would fall into this category. There are also best of breed vendors that (although they try to play in the general market) seem to concentrate in certain verticals. I would place a vendors such as iLinc and Elluminate in this category (I find them often used in distance learning situations). Even a large vendor can have an offshoot effort that is specialized. At this point, Microsoft with its SharedView beta is somewhat specialized (disconnected in many ways from its Live Meeting and OCS efforts).
Open Source Projects: There are also vendors that are leveraging open source efforts to deliver web conferencing technology. DimDim is an example of an open source effort for web conferencing.
Understand usage models ("use case scenarios")
Another important consideration if you need to make some decisions regarding web conferencing technology is to know about the type of applications a vendor supports. Web conferencing vendors can supply additional capabilities beyond "online meetings". Many offer conferencing-enabled applications for marketing, sales, customer service training and so on. The outline below is one way to think about the types of basic and advanced capabilities that might be needed when looking at vendors:
Online Meeting: The basic use case for web conferencing is simply to display a presentation or other type of document (e.g., project charts, spread sheets) to a remote audience. Often, the number of participants is low (less than 20) and the user experience is informal. The meeting might be scheduled or conducted on an ad-hoc basis (where the meeting space is created right away). There are a variety of features that might be needed (I'll cover those in another post) but the basics include the ability to display files in various formats (presentation, document, spread sheet, graphics, PDF), transfer files to other participants, chat with other participants, share a whiteboard, a specific applications or a desktop, and be able to conduct some type of question/answer or poll participants.
Marketing Events: There can also be the need to have a web conference event for a larger number of participants. There may be an additional need for different roles (a moderator vs. a speaker). There may be a need to support a larger number of participants (perhaps hundreds) with a record-playback capability. The application will likely need to support some type of event management feature (registration functions) and include the ability to mute or eject participants. The web conferencing could be part of a marketing campaign of some type so there may be additional integration with other systems and the need for post-event analytics and reporting.
Virtual Classroom: If the web conferencing system is targeted for an instructional environment, then there may be a need for integration with learning management systems or some type of course scheduling/registration application. There may need to be additional features for a student/teacher interaction model (raising a hand). The need for record-playback will likely come up as well. Integration with survey tools might also be needed if there are any type of testing requirements.
Customer Service: If the web conferencing system is intended to support a customer service scenario, there may be a greater need for remote control capabilities that allow support resources to "take over" a remote machine or the ability to co-browse (where a service agent guides another user's browser to a particular page on a web site).
Sales Support: If the solution is intended to support a sales environment, then it might be a core requirement for a web conferencing system to support features such as application sharing, whiteboard, co-browsing and a shared desktop since sales people will perhaps need more capabilities to allow them to demonstrate products and services.
Understand pricing models
Pricing models for web conferencing are more art than science. In fact, it's probably the most confusing aspect of this market (making it difficult at times to compare vendors on an equal basis).
- Subscribe "By The Minute"
- Subscribe "By The Port" (a shared resource, not named)
- Subscribe "By The Room" (a persistent space that anyone can use or attend)
- User Licensing (e.g., named users, guests, moderator-pays-attendees-free)
Since the "buyer" of web conferencing can be someone from different parts of an organization (business as well as IT), vendors have come up with different ways to purchase solutions. If they decision-maker is someone from a a communications or network background, then "by the minute" pricing is often presented since that model makes sense to someone in charge of audio/voice systems. If the decision-maker comes from an application background, a vendor might want to present a model that mimics enterprise software. You might see port pricing where you are buying some number of seats that can be used by anyone. Or, you might see something more creative where there are named users, guest accounts or even situations where only moderators and presenters pay but attendees are "free". More advanced discussions might result in a web conferencing "room" being purchased. This might reflect some type of bundled offer and might be appropriate for marketing events, sales demo spaces or a virtual classroom of some type since there is a regular schedule of sessions with a revolving audience.
Understand convergence trends
The above three concepts do not cover every aspect of "getting started" - I avoided any lengthy discussion of business requirements gathering in this particular post - but they are the some of the re-occurring issues I've come across over the years where people become confused in some way. Another future post will look at collecting requirements for web conferencing systems.
One last important item to remember is the overall trend of convergence. Web conferencing is a component of where the market is heading in terms of unified communications. It's important to keep in mind that a web conferencing decision should be made in context of other technologies that are strongly related such as:
- Instant messaging & presence
- VoIP/IP telephony
- Audio and video conferencing
- Facilities (room systems)
- Compliance (e.g., record/playback, audit)
- Security (e.g., SSL, AES) and identity (directory integration)
- Federation with external systems (including perimeter design)
- Application integration (e.g., e-mail and calendar systems)
- Peripherals (e.g., cameras, USB devices for phones, speakers, etc.)