When the University of British Columbia (UBC) wanted to reach more medical professionals with its professional development lectures, Noreen Kamal turned to online collaboration.
The university’s director of technology, she took some seed funding from the provincial government and got a local vendor to Webcast the classes.
But the results of two attempts were poor.
“We found some technical glitches both times with a local vendor,” Kamal says.
But the need to reach a broader audience remained.
“It wasn’t really affordable for people to fly down here and get a hotel room in a cash-strapped medical environment,” she says.
In this situation, Web and video conferencing offerings from WebEx Communications Inc. proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
Using WebEx LiveStream Services to design, produce, and deliver the medical lectures did the trick, Kamal adds.
Doctors logged in through a Web browser to see a video of the Vancouver lecture streamed live, the slideshow presentation as it happened, and a text field to ask questions of the lecturer.
And the audience was doubled, if one counting those who watched live as well as people that viewed it online.
“Technically it worked great, ” Kamal says.
WebEx and other such online collaboration tools exemplify just one facet of unified communications – a technology that’s getting increasingly sophisticated and widely adopted.
The company’s acquisition last year by San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. represents the trend of consolidation in the sector.
It also marks the beginning of service provider’s attempts to merge online collaboration with voice and video conferencing, according to Stamford, Ct.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc.’s 2007 Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications report.
Currently, most clients using such services are presentation based, says David Mario Smith, senior research analyst with Gartner.
As with UBC’s case, Web conferencing tends to be a one-way broadcasting method to reach large groups of people, but change is on the horizon.
“In terms of people working on a project together online, we’re going to see a lot more of that,” he says. Businesses are demanding a seamless transition from reading a contact’s e-mail or instant message (IM) and immediately entering a Web conference with them.
More than just desktop sharing
That’s the kind of experience Redmond-based Microsoft and Richardson, Texas-based Nortel Corp. hope to accomplish with their Innovative Communications Alliance. The joint operation announced a unified communications solution on Monday.
For instance, users of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 can combine Nortel’s Communication Server 2000 to experience unified messaging (voice and text), click-to-call, VoIP and video conferencing, according to the press release.
The partnership seeks to go beyond booting individual productivity, and towards making group meetings more efficient, and removing the human lag time at the enterprise level, says Tony Rybczynski, global enterprise strategic marketing at Nortel.
“Many business processes are slowed down by humans not checking their e-mail,” Rybczynski says , adding that Nortel has ways to alert people when they need to respond.
He recounted how at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre in Ohio, Nortel helped staff tackle unsatisfactory discharge times .
Previously, even when a patient was healthy enough to leave, nurses often couldn’t contact doctors to receive discharge authorization .
Nortel put a telephony system in place that automatically called a doctor’s cell phone when a discharge request came through. With the press of a button, the doctor could approve the request or ask to speak with the nurse.
Aside from boosting internal productivity, businesses can count dollars-and-cents savings from cuts to travel costs. A service like WebEx can be used in place of an in-person meeting.
A demo on the company’s Web site shows off a desktop sharing feature, where any document or Web page can be viewed by users in a session. Users can draw on top of the screen to highlight information, or even request remote control over the desktop.
A multi-video conferencing window allows up to six camera feeds being displayed at one time and users can adjust frame rate to optimize playback.
WebEx’s dedicated network often means smooth conferencing, says Jack Chawla, senior director of product management and marketing at the company.
“That’s the beauty of WebEx,” he says. “The load on my network and your network is only that of the video transmitting out… six people in a meeting is not a big deal.”
WebEx has its own architecture that reduces latency by about a third compared to traffic over the Internet, Chawla adds. Only the last mile of access layer is done over the Web.
Businesses sometimes need to experience extreme circumstances to change their habits, Gartner’s Smith says. That’s how one client discovered IBM’s virtual meetings during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Asia.
“What they found was that by using Web conferencing they were able to cut costs and increase productivity as well,” Smith says. “Meetings across the board were easier.”
The client realized big cost savings by cutting back significantly on their culture of traveling for every meeting reason, he adds. It also benefited from being able to archive their meetings in a digital format for later review.
Armonk, New York-based IBM’s unified solutions are most useful to companies already using Lotus Notes and Sametime, or using IBM as an application partner, says the Gartner report.
A consistent GUI opens up to a back-end offering multiple communications servers and business applications.
For enterprises that rely heavily on conferencing, Interwise (recently acquired by San Antonio, Texas-based AT&T) is worth considering for unified communications services, according to the Gartner report.
It integrates VoIP audio into Web meetings.
Its Interwise Connect 8.0 application can be scaled to the needs of large companies and allows tight integration of IM, presence, and softphone services, says the report.
But the company’s modest size means it often can’t compete with the level of support that larger competitors do.
The different costs of UC
Currently companies different in their delivery of their unified communications services, according to Smith.
There’s the hosted approach, where users log in through a Web browser, and the on-premises approach that leverages the in-house network to operate.
WebEx and Interwise are examples of a purely hosted approach. WebEx users can elect to pay $375 a month for the first five users of the full document and application sharing service. For $40 per month, the meeting and desktop sharing service is available.
For customers wanting more limited use, they can pay per minute, starting at $0.33.
“If you know how much you’re going to use, per minute is fine,” Smith says. “When you’re going to have a large volume of users, the subscription model is the better route.”
Interwise charges $100 per month for unlimited use of its service.
The Microsoft and Nortel partnership offer both kinds of service delivery, and costs vary based on exactly what a user’s need might be, Rybczynski says. But, there is a start-up cost for businesses without the required Nortel hardware already in place.
For Kamal and the University of British Columbia, the price was well worth it. Their experience with the Web casts was enough to convince them to try the meeting application.
“Just for people around the province to meet,” she says. “To do what they basically do in a teleconference and also share their desktops.”
WebEx also provides a teleconferencing service to complement the desktop sharing service.