Video is becoming an integral part of web conferencing solutions

We at Online Meeting Tools Review have treated video conferencing as a side aspect so far. But there currently is a trend in the online collaboration market to include high quality video into well structured web conferencing tools, opening up many new possibilities for holding online meetings.

Until recently video was basically being used in businesses for the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Many larger companies had proprietary high-end conferencing systems installed in dedicated meeting rooms, based on the technology provided by Cisco, Polycom, Tandberg and the likes. These served as a somewhat expensive toy in C-Level meetings spread over various locations and even continents.

Scenario 2: Teams spread over different locations make use of low-end solutions. There are basically two ways for teams to collaborate using video conferencing technology:

  1. Freeware such as Skype and now also Google+ hangouts are an easy way to connect. The only requirement is that all participants need to have an account for the respective platform before they can start a video conference. With Skype users get some web conferencing functionalities as the tool allows e.g. screen sharing. However, many organizations prohibit users from using tools like Skype, due to security concerns.
  2. Apple and Microsoft make it possible: Teams can also collaborate via tools that are tied to the respective OS or vendor-based server technologies, such as Apple’s iChat and Microsoft’s Lync and OCS (Office Communication Server). These do work pretty well for video conferencing, however typically only within the organization’s firewall.

Another general restriction to video conferencing used to be the relatively low number of users with webcams. This is becoming less of an issue due to huge increases in mobile devices which usually feature a built-in webcam of some sorts and of course cheap external devices that can be used via plug and play. Privately these have been used for quite some time now and web conferencing vendors are now feeling conditions have changed sufficiently for them to integrate video into their solutions and actually offer customers additional value by doing so.

So with business users having their webcams in place, strong enough internet connections to actually allow HD (High Definition) video streaming it seems that conditions are near perfect for web conferencing vendors to integrate video into their tools. We will give you our take on this trend shortly and we’ll let you know how we will be figuring video functionality into our overall ranking.

Are you currently using a video conferencing solution on a regular basis for business purposes? If so just leave a comment and let us know what solution you are using and how that is working out for you.

Meeting online with Google+

Google is going social. Now it is hard to come up with revolutionary concepts when others like Facebook have brought social networking to near perfection and solutions like Skype make you wonder how video chatting could be any easier. Google+ aims at providing all these services, manageable under one convenient location.

Since we focus on web conferencing we checked how easy it is to conduct meetings online with our Google+ test account. At the moment a Google+ participant can invite you to “hang out”. You will see this invitation posted on your Google+ account only, meaning there are no email invitations currently available.

So we hung out and checked which features Google+ provides. Video is easy and performs well. You also have a text chat option. The YouTube button is a nice touch, but it is still not working properly, i.e. not everyone can see the video – but that most likely has to do with Google still refining its service.

The bottom line for us is: Video, audio, and text chats are there which allow for rudimentary online collaboration. The fact that you need to be a member of the service and logged in to participate is a minus considering that for online meetings you want to have a barrier free experience rather than forcing every participant to open an account before joining a meeting. Screen sharing is what we definitely would expect to be added next. Throw in email notifications and the possibility to schedule meetings and we’re talking. But currently, Google+ really only is a place to hang out. And even with all those features added it just might not be the tool of choice for web conferencing.

Microsoft buys Skype – but what about Skype’s partnership with Citrix?

By now the commotion around Microsoft’s purchase of Skype has settled a bit and we can ask our standard question: What does this mean for the web conferencing market?

The overall perception of the acquisition is mixed. Some say that it was a brilliant move by Microsoft and it will give Microsoft a huge share of the online collaboration market. Others simply wonder why you would spend so much money for a service that overlaps to large extents with what you are already offering, e.g. with Windows Live Messenger.

We are wondering about a completely different aspect of this deal, which is very intriguing: A little while back it was announced that Skype would be teaming up with Citrix to integrate Citrix’ web conferencing technology into Skype. Now Citrix GoToMeeting is a direct rival of Microsoft’s own online Meeting solution, Microsoft Office Live Meeting.

Currently it is hard to say whether this is a recipe for disaster or for an outstanding web conferencing solution. Either way, we will keep you posted.

Skype and Citrix team up

Skype announced on March 1 that it will be entering a partnership with Citrix. The two big players are planning to integrate Citrix’ web conferencing technology into Skype.

At a first glance, Skype will profit from this move tremendously. The current Skype solution is good all-right, but not when it comes to web conferencing functionalities. We tested Skype at the end of last year and the results were pretty clear: Keeping in touch via video chat works well enough, but to do some serious online collaboration you are better off with other tools.

Now it seems as if this issue is to be history soon, since Skype will be making use of the well established Citrix technology. It will be interesting to see what the “Skype-version” of web conferencing will actually look like in the end, but it is very well possible that the tool will then also have a greater appeal for business users.

Skype: Great for private chats and calls, not so great for web conferencing

Why did we include Skype in our ranking today? Or better: Why have we waited until today to do so?

Millions of users have been calling each other via Skype for years. If more than two users are in the call – Skype has been offering this functionality for quite some time now – you could say that they are in an „audio conference“. With version 4.1 for Windows and 2.8 for Mac, Skype introduced desktop sharing, which we like to refer to as screen sharing – for two and only two users. With version 5, Skype has enhanced its video functionality: now, for the first time ever, more than two Skype users can wave at each other without being in the same room.

This step-by-step inclusion of features that are important for web conferencing, and the popularity of Skype induced us to test the tool and compare it with the other online collaboration solutions in our ranking. Of course, Skype is chiefly in use for private „meetings“, which is why the focus of the developers understandably rests on the functionalities most relevant to the consumer, as e.g. video calls. With the introduction of desktop sharing, however, Skype has provided business users with an essential functionality for web conferencing, next to VoIP and chat.

The major reason why we haven’t considered Skype so far is just as mundane as it is essential: If you want to use Skype you need an account! And since the world is not quite as black and white and doesn’t change with such breath-taking speed as Michael Arlington likes to suggest in his little „TechCrunch Hightech-Startup-Corner“ the overwhelming majority of business users worldwide simply does not comply with this crucial prerequisite. And if we want to remain realistic for just a second: This will not change all to soon. A lot of potential business users have a big enough workload as is without trying to find the right balance between VoIP and POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) at the workplace. And, not to forget, many companies deny their workers usage of Skype straight out.

Nevertheless, Skype is already being used as a web conferencing solution in some online collaboration scenarios. Especially teams that are spread out across the globe need to make sure to coordinate their efforts and often resort to Skype as a solution. By introducing Skype into our ranking we want to demonstrate what you can do with the tool in regards to online collaboration, and what it leaves to be desired in comparison with established web conferencing tools.

In our test we did not give demerits for the fact that only registered users with an account can share their screens. But we did downgrade the ranking for the biggest – and most painful – gap: Screen Sharing, unlike video conferencing, is only possible between two users! Other turn-offs are:
- Switching mouse and keyboard control is not possible in screen sharing mode;
- Skype offers no marking tools;
- A meeting cannot be scheduled in advance and invitations cannot be announced via mail or Outlook-calendar.

Michael Arrington from Techcrunch posted a blog-post called „Skype Screen Sharing Is A Huge (And Free) Productivity Tool“ in which he lists the major advantages of Skype, i.e. that usage is free of cost and very intuitive. This argument is not really valid. There are well-established, free-of-cost web conferencing tools such as Mikogo and DimDim that offer much more and allow meetings between anybody – not just registered users. Ok, true: with Skype’s “always-on” mode users can start a screen sharing session in five seconds. Most of the webconferencing solutions we tested need between fifteen seconds for scheduled meetings and 60 seconds for ad-hoc meetings. But come on! That cannot seriously be considered a great advantage of Skype. So this is not a relevant criterion either.

Third-party vendors of web conferencing solutions are of no real help when it comes to closing the gap of missing functionalities in their integrated Skype versions. Providers such as Innerpass, Oneeko, Yugma, VuRoom, and Yuuguu basically only offer meeting hosts to include Skype users in their invitations and use Skype’s VoIP functionality. The actual conference is then held with the providers’ own platform, not Skype.

The potential risk of screen sharing

Imagine you’re in a web conference, sharing your screen, when all of a sudden a chat window pops open because you forgot to close the app. Or worse, you forget that your screen is being shared and start typing your own chat message. Well, it happens to the best of us. It actually did just the other day, to a colleague. And it made us think.

Sharing your screen during an online conference can be very risky actually. Not only could you tick a business partner off with a chat message. At the end of a meeting, when a participant’s screen has been shared and the phone conference ends, the participant will often open his mail client before the host can end the meeting. So anybody still in the meeting could read the messages. And if undisclosed files are opened – well, you get the picture.

Users need to be aware what exactly is being shared, at all times. A Mac user sharing his screen with Citrix GoToMeeting can only show his entire screen. Sharing a single app is only possible with Windows. And it is easy to forget. Skype on the other hand – which we do not consider a web conferencing solution, but which serves for demonstration purposes – will not let you forget that someone is seeing your screen or parts of it, by marking the area in question with a red frame.

Now we don’t think web conferencing tools must necessarily go that far. But it should be easily distinguishable to anyone sharing his screen that he is doing so. So we are debating if this should weigh in as a security criteria rather than a mere usability feature.

What do you think? Is this only a minor inconvenience, or do you also regard it as a security risk?