In October 2003, Robin Good interviewed me about the future of the web conferencing industry. The interview, along with Robin Good’s commentary, was originally published on his MasterNewMedia web site and is still available there.
Robin Good: What are the key trends that you have been spotting in the Web conferencing industry in the last 12 months?
*The explosive growth in the number of Web conferencing providers is slowing down. I think we’re at the beginning of a consolidation phase that will reduce the number of players in the market. There have been some mergers and acquisitions recently. So far, I’ve only seen one or two vendors actually go out of business, but I expect that during the next couple of years there will be more dropping out, along with additional mergers. It will be a gradual shakeout, though, because the appetite for Web conferencing is still growing very fast.
* Prices are coming down as Web conferencing gets commoditized.
* Voice over IP technology is continuing to improve, and although more people still use traditional phone conferencing in conjunction with Web conferences, there’s a trend toward using VoIP capabilities built into Web conferencing systems.
* Instant messaging systems are gaining more conferencing-like features, as well as sprouting built-in connections to full-blown Web conferencing systems. Simultaneously, Web conferencing systems are beginning to add IM and presence awareness features. So the distinction between IM and conferencing is blurring and might disappear at some point.
Robin Good: Which specific tool that have emerged in the last 1-2 years has impressed you the most?
David Woolley: Glance impresses me very much. It does just one thing — lets you give someone else a “glance” at whatever’s on your screen — but it does it very well and with an amazingly simple user interface.
SightSpeed has some unique technology that might finally make high-quality, full-motion live video over the Internet practical.
Robin Good: How will real-time collaboration tools look in one year from now? And in three?
David Woolley: Over the next year I expect incremental changes along the lines I mentioned earlier. Looking ahead three years, I think VoIP will become standard.
Live video will become more common, although not universally used, because for many applications it isn’t really necessary and can sometimes be a distraction.
Conferencing will be seamlessly integrated with IM systems to the point that people will be clicking into conferencing sessions with colleagues and customers at a moment’s notice without giving it much thought.
I also expect more integration between real-time conferencing and online workspaces designed for asynchronous collaboration — those with features like message boards, document libraries, project management, etc.
And finally, I hope user interfaces in conferencing systems will be refined to get away from the “jet cockpit” syndrome and make them simpler and more intuitive to use.
Robin Good: What is the area of online collaboration where the industry has not been making enough progress?
David Woolley: Integration of real-time and asynchronous collaborative tools.
Robin Good: If you were to define your own perfect web conferencing tool what would it be like?
David Woolley: I think my answer to this would not mean very much, because it would relate to how I personally like to work, which isn’t necessarily how anyone else likes to work.
Also, my idea of the “perfect” conferencing tool would vary depending on what I happen to be doing at any given moment. The feature set and user interface that might be ideal for a small group meeting would not necessarily be appropriate for a presentation to a large group. A tool that’s perfect for real-time distance learning might not be so great for customer support. And so on.
This is one reason there’s been a proliferation of conferencing tools, and why many vendors offer three or four flavors of conferencing, optimized for different purposes.
But aside from the user interface, my idea of the perfect conferencing tool would be one that’s ubiquitous enough that I could easily pop into a conference with *anyone*, any time, as easily as I can make a phone call.
This can only happen if everyone adopts the same tool, or if the various tools become sufficiently standardized that they can talk to each other, allowing each participant in a conference to use whatever tool and user interface they’re most comfortable with. This would seem to be in direct conflict with the need for diversification of tools to meet a variety of different needs. But perhaps it’s not an insoluble problem…
Robin Good: And how much would it cost?
David Woolley: It would be bundled with broadband Internet access at no extra cost. (Hey, we’re talking ideal here!)
Robin Good: How does the future of Webex, Centra, Live Meeting and other big enterprise players look to you?
David Woolley: Live Meeting’s future is about as secure as anything ever gets in the tech industry. Starting with a highly successful company like Placeware and putting Microsoft’s muscle behind it, how can it go wrong? The other big ones don’t have the Microsoft advantage, but they’re playing in a market that still has huge growth potential, and I don’t foresee any of them disappearing any time soon, unless it’s through mergers.
They will all come under increasing price pressure, though.
Robin Good: In which ways are the SOHO and “enterprise” markets substantially different when it comes to Web conferencing, live presentations and real-time collaboration?
David Woolley: SOHO users and “enterprise” users are not that different in terms of the types of uses they have for conferencing. The main difference is that for a large company, the volume of usage is more likely to make it economically attractive to run an in-house conferencing system, whereas SOHO users are almost certainly better off using a hosted service.
Robin Good: Why companies having 100,000 or 10,000,000 collaboration tools out in the market (instant messengers) have not been able to capitalize on their reach, while comparatively small firms in the enterprise market have been able to repeatedly scout the best margins in the industry?
David Woolley: Perhaps it’s a matter of perception. Instant Messaging began as a consumer-oriented toy, a freebie that came with your AOL subscription, and consequently it hasn’t been perceived as being suitable for business use. We’re beginning to see that change now, but it’s happening slowly. On the other hand, Web conferencing was introduced as a business tool at the outset, and came with a hefty price tag to match, so it’s been taken more seriously.
It’s ironic, because I think that in order for Web conferencing to gain *really* wide adoption as a business tool, it’ll have to become more like instant messaging.
Robin Good: What do you think it would be the ideal business model of the future when it comes to real-time collaboration? And which one do you think will prevail?
David Woolley: I’ll go back to my previous answer: it has to become more like instant messaging.
By that I mean that basic conferencing software needs to be lightweight, inexpensive, painless to install, simple to use, and ubiquitous enough that it becomes as essential as having a phone and email.
It also has to be standardized sufficiently that conferencing software from different vendors is compatible, so that if I happen to have SuperSoft SuperConference on my computer I can communicate with someone who has Microsoft MegaConference on theirs. And it should be sold as a subscription service, with a low monthly fee for unlimited use so you don’t have to think about how much money you’re spending while you’re in a conference.
Somewhere down the road, it’ll be bundled with Internet access. At that point, the service portion of the Web conferencing industry might vanish completely as a distinct product category. But that could be a decade away.
Robin Good: How do you see the future of small companies developing web collaboration products?
David Woolley: There’s always room for truly innovative products, but as the tools mature it becomes harder to create something that’s enough of an improvement over existing products that a small company can make a splash. Look at how long it’s been since a brand new word processor or spreadsheet took the market by storm.
At this point, the possibilities for small companies lie in specialized niche products, or in developing fundamentally better technology for doing one specific thing — live video, say, — which can then be licensed to other vendors and incorporated into existing products.