article

Coming Together

Posted: 2/2002

Coming Together
Easier Interfaces, Affordable Rates
Target Webconferencing’s Sweet Spot

By Khali Henderson

At
the same time that economic pressures and travel concerns have cast the
spotlight on conferencing technologies, webconferencing service providers have
rolled out next-generation versions of their collaborative meeting applications
with user-friendly functionality and flexible pricing — perceived barriers to
widespread adoption of the newest of the conferencing utilities.

The number of webconferencing users
was expected to double from 13.4 million in 2000 to almost 30 million in 2001,
according to one estimate by IDC, an information technology research firm. IDC
predicts the number of users will increase to 161 million by 2005. The firm’s
November 2001 conferencing survey of 573 enterprise conferencing administrators
reveals online meetings are becoming the preferred meeting style regardless of
industry or company size.

IDC analyst Robert Mahowald says
businesses are holding more online meetings than ever. In part this is a way to
cut travel costs, but he says the real story is in their acceptance as a
replacement for most types of meetings.

To help tap this potential, service
providers are actively seeking — some for the first time — agents and
resellers for their collaborative meeting applications.

Growing Opportunity

Webconferencing, like many
technology-based services, suffers an identity crisis. On one hand, it often is
confused with webcasting, which is a streaming video presentation often
accompanied by text chat for questions from a large audience. On the other hand,
it sometimes is confused with collaborative software applications such as Lotus
Notes.

Webconferencing is neither of these,
but it does incorporate some of their respective functions. For example, some
webconferencing applications will allow participants to submit text questions
during a slide presentation. And all but the most lightweight offers feature
collaborative tools, such as white boarding and application sharing — often
described as dataconferencing.

The primary differentiating
characteristic of a webconference is that it is a real-time Internet meeting
with audio, data and, increasingly, videoconferencing capabilities.

While all conferencing platforms —
audio, web and video — are expected to grow substantially in the coming months,
webconferencing promises the most opportunity because of the data transfer
capability that is necessary within enterprises, Frost & Sullivan analysts
report.

"Webconferencing providers have
noted that awareness and interest levels have increased more than 100 percent
since the (Sept. 11) terrorist attacks," says Frost & Sullivan analyst
David Alexander. "File sharing, presentation and collaboration applications
will be of tremendous importance as travel budgets shrink and concerns
grow."

Well before the current stimulus in
usage, providers were working on applications and marketing plans designed to
attract new users and encourage repeat users — to push their applications from
formal to more casual use. Their strategies have been, first, to refine the
packaging and pricing options and, second, to enhance the functionality by
simplifying the interface, better integrating the audio and beefing up security
features.

On-Target Positioning

Most of the changes that have been
made to webconferencing services during the past few months have been driven in
large measure to service providers having identified the "sweet spot"
in the market and tailored their offerings accordingly.

Jerry McEleney, vice president of
wholesale services for Genesys Conferencing, says his firm’s research determined
70 percent of all webconferences consist of 7.5 people. This tracks with
audioconferences, which he says, include seven to eight people and last for 55
minutes.

The simple conclusion that web
collaboration most often is done in small numbers has guided recent packaging
and pricing options among many vendors.

In Genesys’ case, the company
released Oct. 23 its Genesys Meeting Center integrated audio and webconferencing
platform with a new pricing scheme specifically targeting online meetings of up
to 15 participants.

McEleney says audioconferencing
users, who pay 15 cents per minute, can buy unlimited usage of the
webconferencing services for a subscription fee of $39.95 per month for up to 15
participants. (Since the audioconferencing features are available from the same
platform as the webconferencing features, users also have the option of adding
the webconferencing capabilities to an individual audioconference for 40 cents
per minute rather than subscribing to the all-you-can-eat option.) This is in
sharp contrast to traditional pricing for web conferencing, which has followed a
per-seat, per-month license of around $250 to $300, McEleney says, noting a
typical account supporting 10 to 15 users would be about $3,000 per month.

ACT Teleconferencing Inc. also
introduced last fall a web conferencing product that targets small groups of
less than 25. ACT’s ReadyConnect Online is a complement to its reservationless
audioconferencing product ReadyConnect, and it allows users to launch
collaborative meetings with no operator and no reservations.

ACT Teleconferencing executive vice
president of sales and marketing Emily Magrish says the new service was designed
with a participant cap because web conferences with larger groups tend to wander
off course without operator assistance. (A service for these occasions, which
she calls "events," is expected to be released during the first
quarter).

ReadyConnect Online also caters to
small groups by not allowing for text chat, which Magrish says is superfluous
and distracts participants who also are "chatting" over the telephone.

Magrish declined to disclose pricing
for the service, but she said it also is per-minute per person to mirror the
audioconferencing service.

Also in mid-2001, Premiere
Conferencing introduced a small group (up to 48 participants) web collaboration
solution as an alternative to its flagship VisionCast event-oriented service.

ReadyCast, an enhancement to
Premiere Conferencing’s reservationless audioconferencing service
ReadyConference, offers on-the-fly online meeting service for 35 cents per
minute, per person in addition to per-minute charges for ReadyConference.

While not targeting its service
specifically to small groups, Raindance Communications Inc. has adopted the
per-minute, pay-as-you-go pricing as an alternative to traditional per-seat
licensing for its new of Raindance Web Conferencing Pro 5.0.

Pricing for the service, which was
launched in October, starts at 39 cents per minute for the standard version and
49 cents per minute for the seminar version that offers additional
event-management features.

Raindance’s COO Jack Blunt says the
change was made to eliminate a primary barrier to adoption. He says the
licensing model forces customers to predict the number of moderators and users
as well as the volume of conferences without any historical data to guide them.

Raindance agent Scott Clague,
director of indirect channel sales for Communication Management Services says
new pricing has been a good closer. "When [prospects] see [the
application], they say, ‘It’s going to cost me a ton.’ The fact that it doesn’t
makes it an easier sale," he says.

Simpler Interface

In response to customer feedback,
vendors also have made strides in simplifying use of their services.

Magrish says her company’s focus
groups list simplicity as a key factor in the participants purchasing and use
decisions. Among the groups "laundry list" of requirements was being
able to easily upload meeting content on the fly and to share applications
without "mouse wars," i.e. when everyone is trying to control the
collaboration at the same time.

After a year’s search, ACT
Teleconferencing selected software from MeetU to power its web collaboration
product, ReadyConnect Online, which debuted Nov. 15.

Uniquely, ReadyConnect Online gives
each conference chairperson a personalized web address, which services as a
permanent virtual conference room where a webconference can be conducted.
Functional controls and real-time status indicators reside on the side of the
screen, while the center is reserved for document viewing, sharing and editing.
Interestingly, visitors to this "room," can request a meeting with the
chairperson instantly or leave a "business card" or documents in the
room if the chairperson is out.

Raindance also had simplicity in
mind when it introduced in late October the latest version of its
webconferencing service, Raindance Web Conferencing Pro 5.0.

In addition to its new moniker, the
version, which succeeds Raindance Collaboration 4.6, features a completely
redesigned interface that replaces layered windows with a single frame with
icon-based buttons for one-click access to the conferencing features.

Raindance’s Blunt told PHONE+ the
redesign was critical because "intimidation or a steep learning curve slows
adoption."

In fact, he said the complexity of
the previous version was intimidating to its agents and few sold it. They
prefered the easier audioconferencing sell.

With the streamlined version, Blunt
expects the company’s agent channel to beef up sales.

CMS, an 11-year-old master agency,
signed up in August with Raindance and hired Clague as director of indirect
channel sales with responsibility for the new product line.

In December, Clague says his firm
already sold nine accounts — including a few very large ones, such as a
trucking company — in its first month offering the Web Conferencing Pro
service.

"The single interface with all
the tools on one screen is huge," Clague says.

Director of marketing for Raindance
reseller InterAct Conferencing Leeann Morris says the improved user interface
makes it easier to use and to sell. "The smoother the demos go, the easier
the sale," she says.

Clague and CMS’ subagents also
conduct online demostrations of the service with their prospective customers. He
says most don’t realize these applications are available to them — attesting to
an untapped market. Once they do, they figure out ways it can change their
business practices by enabling remote training, online sales demonstrations as
well as collaboration with project teams, he adds.

Integrated Audio

Another key to simplifying operation
of webconferencing applications is the integration of the audio and
webconferencing platforms so that users can manage both environments from a
single interface.

With the introduction of Genesys
Meeting Center, for example, Genesys Conferencing has combined its TeleMeeting
audio controls with its PowerShare webconferencing tools. McEleney says the
unified platform eliminates the need to manage the audio portion of the call
with DTMF tones.

Raindance Web Conferencing 5.0 also
gives the conference moderator a single login for complete command of audio and
web controls, participant lists, phone dial-out, muting, locking, etc. for up to
96 participants.

The company says a key advantage is
customers have only one phone number, one conference ID, one tech-support team
and one bill.

Security

While simpler pricing and ease of
use will get many users on board, there are others that remain skeptical about
its security features, fearing data are vulnerable when pushed outside company
firewalls into the Internet.

One company, Sonexis, views this as
such a great concern that it traded its service delivery model for a CPE model.
This month, the company plans to roll out the first of a suite of products (as
yet unnamed) that allow companies to run integrated audio, video and
webconferences in house. The equipment hangs off the PBX and server and keeps
information behind the firewall.

"The trend is for services to
come in house," says Sonexis’ president David Friend, noting that the
migration is not unlike the movement from Centrex to PBX. "From an economic
standpoint it also makes sense except for small users."

Service vendors PHONE+
contacted say they have addressed security concerns. Raindance’s Blunt says that
his firm’s applications are run from a secure data center Raindance controls
from end to end. Customers also can select optional 128-bit SSL encryption for
added security on top of standard security features such as access control and
user authentication.

"Our customers are very
comfortable that we are doing a better job [of maintaining security] than they
could," he says.

InterAct Conferencing’s Morris says
its system is PIN activated and allows users to change the security code for
every call.

ACT Teleconferencing’s application
also allows for assignment of a password for each meeting. Further, says Magrish,
the meetings can be "locked down" when all of the participants have
arrived so that no others can eavesdrop. As an added measure, documents can be
encrypted so only participants can view them. "One of our largest clients
is a Big 5 accounting firm. They can use this [security feature]. All three make
for a secure meeting," she says. 


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