Multimedia conferencing and collaboration packages come in many variations. In this report, we examine three such services.
by Rob Smithers and Martin Milner
Conferencing and collaboration products that bring together the company and its remote agents, be they customers, suppliers or employees, once more find themselves at the top of the enterprise agenda because of the challenges presented by company travel. Growth in the sector is such that Gartner now estimates that, by 2011, Web conferencing will be available to 75 percent of corporate users as a standard utility, alongside e-mail, presence, calendaring and instant messaging (IM).
The adoption of conferencing solutions has also seen an increase because of an annual price decline of between 10 percent and 15 percent in the Web conferencing services market, a factor not missed by companies currently building hybrid conferencing solutions. Traditionally, Web conferencing has been used for sales and marketing purposes, as well as training and customer support, which together account for almost 75 percent of use. Using Web conferencing for general meetings is beginning to take off, contributing 28 percent of all usage in 2007, according to Frost and Sullivan's North American Web Conferencing Services report, published in July 2008.
Conferencing and collaboration products accelerate and enhance human collaboration by:
- saving time, compressing project schedules and timelines;
- reducing travel expenses by virtually connecting team members locally and globally;
- making phone tag a thing of the past through broadcast messages that can be picked up once a user returns to the computer or IM systems enhanced with presence functionality; and
- improving overall productivity by keeping people connected, collaborating and working.
Additional business benefits include more robust project monitoring with scheduling and organizational features that also facilitate the creation of teams and their assignment, and by accelerating feedback into processes leading to improved decision making.
Subject matter experts can be identified and accessed more quickly, and questions can be answered without having to wait for a return e-mail or a telephone call. Conferencing and collaboration products can also improve customer satisfaction by enhancing the overall quality of a product or service.
In August 2008, an invitation was issued to conferencing companies to participate in a review that examines the current state of conferencing. Miercom evaluated three companies' conferencing and collaboration products, all of which offer the previously mentioned benefits and advantages. Each also brings something of their own to the conferencing and collaboration table. The companies and their products are Great America Networks Conferencing QuickVisuals, Genesys Conferencing's Genesys Meeting Center and Avaya's Meeting Exchange.
QuickVisuals from Great America Networks Conferencing displays six active webcam windows.
With its QuickVisuals service, Great America Networks Conferencing (GANC) offers all of the features expected of a conferencing platform, including 100 percent browser-based videoconferencing with true voice-over-IP (VoIP) audio and text chat. In addition, GANC provides some features that are not common among other service offerings, including:
- a dedicated conferencing consultant for every account, with a direct number for live help;
- the capability of recording and archiving a presentation, without having to set up a custom player;
- the ability to control the screen resolution of presenters and attendees; and
- video capabilities (not always available in competitive products), including the ability to show video in up to 12 webcam windows, with VoIP to 100 participants.
In addition, conference attendees do not need to download, install and configure any software, although the presenter does need to make a one-time download. Participants need only a Web browser and Flash to attend a meeting, which, for additional flexibility, can be hosted from computers with Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems.
GANC is able to offer competitive rates because of its internal setup and infrastructure, which it owns, and, therefore, can pass on the benefits. Having a fully redundant, reliable network that includes a Compunetix conferencing platform housed in a carrier colocation facility, GANC has access to multiple power grids, UPS backup systems and long-term generators. For the online user, security is assured via RTMP/RTMPT/RTMPS protocols.
For company-wide rollouts, an account manager works with the client company to ensure the implementation is both simple and controlled; training sessions are included for new users of all GANC products and services.
Genesys Conferencing's Meeting Center shows the status of meeting participants and a floating video panel.
Genesys Meeting Center
Available in many different languages, Genesys Conferencing provides a highly featured multimedia conferencing and collaboration service. Its Meeting Center service underwent a major transition (Release 4.0) of service to 100 percent standards-compliant AJAX (faster on slower machines and provides for more dynamic Web pages) at the beginning of 2007. Also included were improvements in presence, the use of corporate directories, calendar features and a move to dedicated media servers to improve scalability and allow the deployment of further services.
Genesys notes that within enterprise environments, there is an emphasis on applications-sharing technologies and the means to manage calls and meetings, with the aim of making meetings a more true-to-life and richer experience for the end-user.
According to the company, hybrid conferencing developments are growing, initially within the Web conferencing area, but Genesys is sure this will start to impact audio conferencing. In many situations, an enterprise has its own on-premise equipment, often an IP PBX and related equipment brought together to build a unified communications system, but still uses an outside service for conferencing and collaboration. An example is the use of Microsoft Office Communications Server combined with enterprise IM and Intercall's services for audio and Web conferencing purposes. Gartner, in its Web Conferencing Magic Quadrant, estimates that by 2011 40 percent of all Web conferences will be operated using on-premise deployments.
With growth in the area of reservationless conferencing and in extending conferencing and collaboration to mobile devices, the Genesys Meeting Center now works with the Apple iPhone and its Safari browser.
Genesys' development strategy has been to integrate with as many different tools as possible, mainly IM clients and calendaring applications, in day-to-day use within the larger enterprise to increase office productivity and to offer more integration with UC products.
Avaya's Meeting Exchange Enterprise's integration with Microsoft, IBM Lotus Notes and Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional environments shows participants and status, presentations and videos.
Avaya Meeting Exchange
Avaya's Meeting Exchange Enterprise combines audio conferencing with other collaboration tools. It makes possible reservationless and scheduled conferencing and provides options for managing an audio conference. Users can share their desktops and applications, push presentation slides, access IM capabilities, associate an audio link to a name and see a participant's icon change as their line is muted/unmuted. Users also can add streaming point-to-point video to an audio call, without requiring any special tools for the recipient.
Avaya sees Meeting Exchange as an important part of its overall UC portfolio, and one of Avaya's UC clients, One-X Portal, integrates with Meeting Exchange, allowing invite and participant control features directly from the UC interface.
The service can be deployed in either a time-division multiplexing (TDM) or IP environment. In an IP environment, it works with Avaya's S6200 media servers, whose SIP-based architecture has been designed to support the Meeting Exchange application. The S6200 allows enterprises to set up many different types of conferences, from reservationless to Web, and the Avaya Web Conferencing application provides conference recording, customizable reporting, billing, presence and IM functionality.
Meeting Exchange can scale to support unlimited users (for audio only) and 32,000 users for audio and Web.
Among the solution's features:
- an integrated participant roster for controlling the actions of both audio and Web participants;
- the ability to dial out to add participants to a conference;
- the ability to promote and demote participants within a conference; and
- recording at the touch of a button.
Avaya has two main objectives with its Meeting Exchange product: Keep it simple and easy to use, and increase the level of integration it offers.
Where possible, the Avaya system offers the means to invoke particular functions, including clicking, selecting, dragging and dropping, providing visual clues for the user and allowing the system to be managed in more than one way. For example, it offers the ability to mute cell phone conference attendees with noisy phones.
Meeting Exchange allows users to:
- initiate reservationless conferences at a moment's notice;
- maintain account profiles, schedule meetings and manage conference participants during a call;
- record conferences for future playback; and
- manage high-touch event conferences using the Bridge-Talk feature, which combines multiple, discrete bridges into one for the purpose of a meeting with a long attendee list.
Meeting Exchange fits in with most products that are used on a daily basis and with which enterprise users are familiar. Increased integration will, according to Avaya, make conferencing a natural extension to using a phone or participating in a phone conference.
Integration with Avaya Web Conferencing gives the product a full-featured Web collaboration capability, and a lightweight directory access protocol integration option lets the product work with a company's existing contact directories.
As enterprises become more distributed and global in their reach, they will continue to seek ways to communicate more efficiently, effectively and inexpensively. The following conferencing and collaboration trends were noted:
Products continue to merge into single, integrated solutions that offer comprehensive communications, conferencing and collaboration capabilities. There also has been an increase in hybrid deployments and a move toward making conferencing and collaboration more a part of a company's overall unified communications solution. Development and dollars are currently concentrated in advancing audio quality, providing more extensive application sharing and improving meeting control facilities.
More products are providing moveable, resizable, dockable floating windows (or power panels) to show video streams or provide other information to the moderator, making for a smoother conferencing experience for attendees, without interrupting the presentation. The reviewed vendors state they are incorporating as many ease-of-use features as possible into their products, with the goal of providing a highly functional and seamless experience, so the user does not need to worry about the applications that are being used or even from which company they come.
Finally, conferencing abilities continue to be extended to a wide range of mobile devices. The goal of these conferencing companies is for users to experience no difference in function, regardless of the device or method used to join and participate in a conference.
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This article originally appeared in our sister publication Communications News October, 2008.