Transcript for Conferencing in the UC Conversation
Marty Parker: Hi, this is Marty Parker of UCStrategies, and I will be the host of today’s podcast. Our topic for today is conferencing. I’ll just say that conferencing in my opinion is the new paradigm for communication. More and more these days I think about a two-party call as the smallest of conferences – not as something different from a conference. And there are many reasons I think of it that way, most importantly is the reason of my business benefits, what I get out of a conference because my conferences usually come with a number of tools that allow me to have dashboards and recording and reports and feedback and a lot of things that come with the conference experience of today. And we really, I think, need to focus on how that is benefiting the business and why can’t we have that in every call. Maybe every call should be a conference.
In order to help us with this discussion today we have a special guest, David Frankel, the CEO of ZipDX, and ZipDX is the service we use here every week on our podcast. There are a number of things it provides: high definition conferencing, transcription, it has wide band as well as narrow band – a lot of features. David may mention some of those. It’s not a promotional call for ZipDX, but we have brought an industry leader onto the call to interact with us during the dialogue.
So having said that, the topic is conferencing. Let me first call on Dave Michels. Dave, what would you say is the most important thing in the industry regarding conferencing?
Dave Michels: It’s interesting to me because conferencing is such an important part of the UC solutions set, but it seems largely perceived as a commodity. It’s almost always the bridesmaid. And it’s interesting as I listen to CIOs, and I listen to the vendors talk about their solutions, conferencing comes up very, very early in the conversation, either part of the ROI or part of the security, or something like that. But it never is the lead problem that anyone is trying to solve. It’s never really positioned, it’s not really strategic. So I want to ask our guest, David, how do you make conferencing, or maybe you consider my perceptions incorrect; how do you make conferencing more strategic? How do you get into the premise versus Cloud conversation? How do you get into the security conversation; how do you get into the whole UC...how do you fit into that UC conversation earlier rather than later?
Dave Frankel: Well Dave, I think it’s a great question and honestly I haven’t found the universal answer to that. I think the fact is that in most enterprises today, multi-location enterprises, certainly multinational enterprises, organizations where people are working from home and remote offices, conferencing has grown and it is, in fact, strategically important. It is a very important business tool. I think that many IT communication specialists don’t see it that way. It’s a technology that sort of 20 years ago became effectively a commodity. It works, it does its job; most people don’t love conferencing, they tolerate it. It’s an annoyance for some set of people, but we’ve all learned to put up with it. And so on it’s own it doesn’t usually rise to that strategic level. Now for us, our customers sort of have self selected that they recognize it as being strategic. It’s a critical business tool; it’s something in some organizations – you know, certain employees may spend four or six, even eight hours a day on conference calls; that’s how they run their business internally. That’s how they communicate with supply chain, with customers, through marketing. So in those cases it is strategic and there’s pressure on the IT organization to find solutions to specific conferencing issues and problems and even to find new ways to innovate with conferencing; so that’s where we like to play.
Marty Parker: Let me ask you about that innovation because you talk about it as a 20-year-old technology. What are some of the bigger innovations that have happened in conferencing in the past 20 years to make it more contemporary?
Dave Frankel: Well, 20 years ago is maybe when reservation-less conferencing became popular and readily available and pretty cost effective. So at that point anybody could start a conference call any time, call a number, punch in a set of digits and you could be on the call, distribute some digits to other people, and they’d be there too, and that’s the way it’s been.
I think a couple of innovations that have been important – conferencing has shifted from a situation where mostly it was being done conference room to conference room to now the mode we’re in is almost everybody is at their desk or on the go, but they’re individual – they’re not in a group setting anymore, physically. They’re in a group virtual setting. So adapting the systems and the technology and the procedures to recognize that, I think is pretty important and conferencing has become frustrating with all these codes that you have to enter, all this uncertainty about who is on the call, people joining late, who just joined, these jokes about conferencing nightmares, the wrong people getting access. So shifting conferencing so that it is individualized, so that we take advantage of contact lists and databases and profiles and so on that are readily available in our web world. So for example when it’s conference time the system just calls you and you just answer. And if you’re driving, you just hit that button on your headset and boom you’re in the conference call; you don’t have to struggle entering codes and so forth. I think that’s an important adaptation for a conferencing system to work now the way others are working. I think that security in making sure that only the right people are on these calls is very important because conference calls are being used to discuss all sorts of critical business information that doesn’t belong beyond the group that was specifically invited to that call.
And then I think another is that the situational awareness, being able to know who is on your call, being able to monitor that as a moderator, being able to have the controls to keep that conference effective as the group grows and you know – you get conference calls that have 20, 30, 50, 100, 150 people on them, you need to sort of keep order in the virtual conference room and again putting those tools in people’s hands via the web I think is important.
Marty Parker: David, that kind of goes to the point that Art Rosenberg had made a little earlier which I think he’d like to talk about here. Art, you were thinking that it’s important to understand the roles that are being played within a conference. David starting talking about organizers, participants, contributors and so forth; what would you say about that, Art?
Art Rosenberg: You can look at the conference as a remote meeting. I mean people getting together in real time, but there are different roles in terms of who’s organizing it, who is managing it, who is going to control. David mentioned control so the question is, who controls what and what other facilities would there be for the participants if they’re presenting something or they’re just in the audience and what can they do? And if they’re in the audience can they have side bars between themselves so that they don’t interfere with the presentations going on? So it’s like being in a room and you want to do certain things; you want to get information but you don’t want to interrupt.
One of the most important things that you need to have when you’re organizing a conference, everyone has to be as well prepared to participate rather than “What am I doing here,” “Why are we having this meeting”? Obviously the information from the organizer would send information about the subject matter, any reference information that they need to know and now they’re prepared to sit in, listen and discuss.
David if you would like to just comment on the different roles and functions that different kinds of participants have at their disposal to participate in their respective roles would be very interesting.
David Frankel: You’ve touched on a lot of really important points. Let me separate maybe a couple of categories. First, things like agendas and telling people what’s expected of them and having people come prepared and so on, that is so critical to having a productive conference call and making the best use of everybody’s time. And of course a lot of that is outside of our control other than publishing on our website what we think our best practice is. So those sort of non-technical elements are obviously extremely critical.
When it comes to the conferencing technology itself though, I think that’s where providers can make a difference and we absolutely do see all of these different roles in different circumstances. They don’t apply in every call, sometimes you’ve just got a small group of people getting together to discuss. But usually you are in a situation; there’s an organizer and we have that role. And part of our fundamental system, as I said earlier we recognize each participant individually. We’re not just looking at a code to get you into a conference call, or a code that distinguishes between a host and not a host. In our system there’s specifically an organizer, he has a name and is a recognized individual. We have additional hosts so others can be designated as hosts or co-presenters on that call. And then there are what we call participants – we also do use the term audience and presenters; so those dictate different roles. And there are different features, features, subsets of different conferencing system behaviors that we can offer depending on what role you’re in.
We have further roles that don’t apply to all calls, but we have observer roles. So for example, we have people doing virtual focus groups and they want to be able to have observers who are watching essentially on the other side of the one-way mirror. So our system can be configured so that you can have a main conversation going on, you can have a facilitator, that’s a role who is interviewing the participants directly in the focus group, but then you have observers who hear that conversation and can talk amongst themselves but not be heard by the main group. So you get into some very interesting situations in the financial world. They have compliance officers who need to be able to listen to conversations but be completely undetected and be able to burst in if necessary to indicate that something inappropriate is being discussed and put a stop to it.
So those are some sort of esoteric things that we do with roles. More generally just having this notion of host, presenters and audience and be able to control that audience, be able to do things like automated muting of a large group so that while the presenters are talking they’re not interrupted or disturbed by background noise. Let people raise their hands virtually using their telephone keypad to indicate that they want to ask a question, being able to sequence through that and then some of these features can be selectively given to participants. So participants may be enabled to access an online dashboard so that they can see who else is in the meeting, but in certain circumstances you might not want them to have access to that. So you might hide that or you might set it so that they can only see the presenters and themselves; they can’t see who the other participants are.
You talked about being able to have side conversations so you can selectively enable what we call sub conference rooms where people can go off and have a side conversation and then be returned to the main conference either of their own volition or under control of a moderator. So those are all tools that can come into play depending on what sort of a meeting you’re trying to have. Just as in a person meeting you would arrange the conference room chairs and you would have roles and responsibilities that would depend on how you wanted that particular session to happen.
Marty Parker: Those are very interesting thoughts, David, thank you for responding to Art’s questions about the roles. There’s quite a diverse set of things. I’m very interested in that silent monitoring thing. Jim Burton, are you actually listening to us right now? Just a joke...
But I’d like to say that let’s notice that the world has become much more mobile. We’re not sitting in the conference rooms all the time; we’re out on the road, in cars, at customer sites and so forth and that means we’re most likely on the cellular telephony network.
Michael Finneran, tell us your well informed thoughts about how mobility is intersecting the conferencing world?
Michael Finneran: Thank you, Marty. Yes first I’d like to thank David for spending time with us today; you’re insights on this are a lot richer than I’d imagined they could be. But the cell phone always does seem to be the weak leg in any conference. We’ve seen some amazing technology from companies like Dolby, but we’re really we’re still waiting for HD. Now – well, two questions really, will voice over LT finally give us an HD experience for the cellular user, bring them up to essentially the same level wired device? And secondly, will it be easy for that mobile user to join one of your conferences or have you gotten that far ahead on it as yet?
David Frankel: Two great things, and I think they are to some degree independent. So, just to talk about the quality for a second. Mobile telephony was introduced years ago and it’s evolved quite a bit and we’ve had to put up with quite a quality compromise; in fact, it’s gotten worse to some degree over time because the carriers got anxious to try to pack more and more calls into given amount of licensed spectrum. And so compromises were made on voice quality. I think we’re finally starting to see that flip; we’re going to see it move the other direction as the OLTE gets rolled out as you mentioned, and as HD voice codecs become important. And there’s the potential that some wireless calls could even sound better than land line calls. So I am looking forward to that, but there’s a lot of things in play.
There is the codec and the actual techniques for sending the digitized voice over the air and we’re going to see some good things happen there over probably the next two or three years. All of the carriers now have made noise, all the U.S. carriers and they’ve been lagging the international carries; they’ve made noise that they are going to start to deploy it. But remember that there are a lot of other factors that impair mobile quality. In many cases people are just in noisy environments; they’re out and about, they’re on the train, they’re walking down the street, they’re in windblown areas so we need to continue to see improvements that do noise suppression, have multiple microphones in the hand held device so they can detect what’s actually being spoken by the user versus what’s background, and remove it. That sort of thing has to happen and we still have the problem of the radio link to the extent that you go out of range – that’s going to be a problem, that you go into a tunnel, whatever it is. That can impair even the highest quality codec. So it’s going to get better, I don’t know that it’s going to get perfect. And that – and we do need some changes in the phone network and the changes in the way things interconnect because today almost everything goes through the PSTN. And that dictates that we operate at a narrow band audio. So we’re going to get beyond that as well as we move to IP-based transport for the public network, telephone network, so it will come, but it will come sort of incrementally.
Then the other is just the access. As you mentioned, how do you get on these calls easily? And as I said one of the things that I think is most convenient is if the system can just call you because when you’re in the car driving 70 miles an hour it’s awfully tough to find that secret code, punch it in and so on. So just having the phone ring at meeting time, being able to tell the system in advance “I can be reached at this location, or this one, or this one,” I think is important. But as I said, you’re still going to risk getting dropped and so when you go through that tunnel and you come out the other side – people always ask me, “Why can’t the conferencing system call me back”? Well, our problem is we don’t know if you got dropped or if you hung up on purpose. So we can’t just keep calling you all the time, but what we do in our system when you hit redial on your phone we can recognize your caller ID, we figure out who you are and we put you back where you belong so you don’t need to enter a code again. And there are other things left over from the old days of initial reservation-less conferencing; you’ve probably been on calls where if the host drops then the whole call ends. And that’s kind of nuts today because, again, if it’s the host or the organizer that’s going through the tunnel you don’t want to lose the other 10 participants when they drop.
So in our system we have configuration settings, the conference will keep going at least for a period of minutes, give the host a chance to dial back in so you don’t suffer those kinds of things. So the conferencing platforms need to adapt to these changing situations and as you’ve said, the increasing role of the mobile technology is an integral part of conferencing.
Marty Parker: Continuing on the mobile topic, Dave Michels raised a question on the dashboard here about mobile clients; where do you want to go with that, Dave?
Dave Michels: Well, I’m just curious; I’ve been seeing so many conferencing services have their own mobile clients and I was just curious what Mr. Frankel thinks about mobile clients. Are they needed or where do they fit?
David Frankel: I’m glad you asked and we sometimes do get asked – I’ll get asked, “So do you have a mobile client?” And my response back is, “what do you want it to do?” And their response is “well, so and so has a mobile client that helps them manage all these stupid conference codes” and my answer is, “well, how about if we just get rid of the conference codes?” “How about if your phone just rings at meeting time?” People have said, “well why don’t you have something that warns me five minutes ahead of conference call?” My response is, “well, you probably have a calendar on your mobile phone already,” calendar application. We want to take advantage of all those things that are already standardized; we don’t want to invent new things unnecessarily.
So where I do see potential utility in mobile clients? One, we have some customers that use this thing we call the dashboard that shows who’s in the conference, who’s invited, who’s not present, who’s dropped off, who’s talking. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to try to use that when you’re driving a car. But we do have people that use tablets, for example, which are mobile devices, when they’re in boardroom meetings. Where, for example, some select set of people are remotely connected and they want to be able to see who is remotely connected and what’s going on there. So our system does run on a tablet, again using browser technology. And I think there may be some use for certain kinds of voice clients, SIP clients in a mobile environment. Certainly over quality enterprise, WiFi that may make sense for accessing certain kinds of specialty conferencing functions. We’re looking at it actually – we may talk a little later about multi-lingual conferencing where you have interpreters on a connection and there you need special capabilities. So where it really serves an added value, I think it makes sense. I think otherwise as a gimmick I’m not sure it’s really that helpful.
Marty Parker: Well thank you for that, David. Phil Edholm, I’m going to call on you next because David started introducing some questions aboutwhere conferencing might be going and how things might evolve in the mobile network, you know the role the internet will play. I think you have questions about the overall future, the business model and so forth, right?
Phil Edholm: Yeah absolutely, thanks much. I think David, it’s an interesting perspective if I look at conferencing as being one of those things that is continuing a spectrum of – I’ll call it “underlying technology change.” You know, I remember back in the days when the PBX had a 3-6 conference within the PBX because you could do that without the noise bar up. But if you wanted to have a conference with more people you had to have a separate conference bridge and there was very specific mixing and all that. And there was a set of technology costs and what we’re finding is through the years those technology costs of doing the service are continuing to be reduced. You know the conference facility has gone from being hardware to I think the probable majority for audio anyway, if we ignore video, are software based in a 1U server you can easily do 2,000 to 5,000 ports of conferencing. There are people who say you can do a lot more; the whole TDM aspect of conferencing is beginning to be replaced with using IP clients.
If I make sure my conference facility is an IP conference facility, my client can be IP conference, why would I want to have TDM in the middle? It basically degrades the signal, adds latency, etc., etc. So the result of all these is the underlying cost of conferencing appears to be going down pretty significantly. I don’t know the exact numbers, you may be comfortable with it but my expectation is that it’s in multiple orders of magnitude, if you were to look over the last 20 years in the cost per port to support for a period of time doing conferencing.
What I think that’s brought is the center of alternative modernization models, which beginning to see. So freemium models where you have less than five users, you can have it for free. Obviously the UberConference of the world, the free conference facilities, those kinds of things. We’re also beginning to see people like Google come in and actually offer conferencing because they have a totally separate monitorization around using what you say to deliver value to it.
I’m just curiousm as someone who’s in this industry, what are your strategies to build your business and manage your business through this transition?
David Frankel: Great points. I think I agree with everything that you’ve said. I think factually here, absolutely correct. Our bridges, our software; so this is now a software application. It’s not like 20 years ago where there was a huge room full of switching and conferencing, hardware and ports and so on. The bulk of this is being done in IP. So the economics are definitely changing; that’s a continuing process. Today in this business there is of course a technology cost – like there is to building any software and application and maintaining it and expanding it and adding features and so on. And then there is still this hold over anomalies from the PSTN that due to tariffs and taxes even in this country and fees and so on, there are real costs to actually making phone calls still. So those do need to be addressed but they’ve dropped substantially as well. So the model is changing. I think that in terms of how that is then priced – there are still costs. I mean, the thing to understand is that like any other application, like salesforce.com I mean why isn’t that free? Well, it costs money to develop and maintain and enhance and support that technology; so there’s a fee associated with that.
And we’re in the same boat and now you ask, “How do I recover that?” What is the right way to price it? You can do things like have a freemium model and try to give some things away and then recover it. When people go over a limit you can do things with ads. The free conferencing situation, which has been around for a number of years is actually not free; it’s just you’re getting somebody else to pay because today – in today’s United States and even overseas there are compensation systems where intermediate carriers or callers or whatever will have to pay and those payments get remitted ultimately to the service provider.
So those are all sort of interesting schemes. I think when we talk about business and enterprise it makes sense to simply pay a fair price for the value that you’re receiving. And so for me, that’s the model that I stick to. I like to ask people what’s the most expensive aspect of a conference call? Is it international charges? Is it mark ups for recordings and things like that?
The most expensive cost for an enterprise of a conference call is the people’s time; that swamps all the other costs. So what you really want to do is make sure that you’re making those people as productive as you can. And I think asking people or mandating that if you’re making a call with only three people or less, or six people or less that – our PBX can do that so use that... If you’re making a domestic call we get the best rates on domestic conferencing from X, Y, Z, so use this platform. If it’s international, go here. If it’s video, that’s a whole different ballgame, make your call a whole different way; that’s a huge hassle for everybody -- for the people setting it up, for the people participating. So my vision is that ultimately this will all be seamless. And by the way – and so you’re going to join a meeting, a virtual meeting in the most efficient way possible and you’re going to have the best possible experience. And if everybody happens to be on mobile phones, that’s fine, that’s what you’ll get. But if half the group has video clients, soft clients on their PC’s, dedicated desk top systems, they’re in a room that’s video equipped, they can join that way and kaboom the video people will be able to see each other. And if you’re on a mobile device and it’s got a front facing camera, wow you can join that way, too, if you’ve got the bandwidth to access it; down to audio then you’re good that way.
Marty Parker: David, I think this goes back to some of the earlier conversations about purpose and roles. You know there are conferences as you suggested – everything from focus groups on up to executive meetings – different purposes will require different components and I think you made the point earlier that the configurability of the services is going to be most important.
Jon Arnold – having listened to this, what’s been coming to your mind and what would you like to insert?
Jon Arnold: Thanks, Marty. I’d just like to comment that I think this is a really valuable discussion for us to have, to really focus on what (I think) we’ve all associated with being a fairly low value application. But one that has a lot of value when it’s done even just a little bit better. And I think the comments earlier about user experience and supporting mobility etc. are really trying to take the friction out of what used to be a complicated and aggravating application. But when it’s done well and it’s done right it is a very, very useful tool. So I’m glad we’re having this conversation to really amplify that point.
Marty Parker: Thanks, Jon.Any other comments or questions?
Phil Edholm: David, I have two technology-directed questions. I wanted to make sure I understood; do you support video today? Just curiosity because I wasn’t aware of that.
David Frankel: We don’t market a video capability; I can tell you that my office is littered with video stuff.
Phil Edholm: It’s on the way; good. I mean I actually agree with you. I think the concept that’s saying that I have a different system for internal, for external, for video and that gets pretty complicated. And the capability of having a single solution provide them all is pretty important as long as the cost structure is not inordinate. So the other two question areas that I think are interesting of technologies here. One is obviously WebRTC and you know, when you see WebRTC coming in to your offer set as a client in obviously first for audio and then for video longer term and the second area is spatial audio. I have a background in spatial audio, seeing the products that Dolby and BT are rolling out, I think spatial audio has a significant added advantage to conferencing; so I’d be curious about those as the two areas of technology and what your view is of them for both the industry perspective and as well as the ZipDX perspective in terms of your offers?
David Frankel: Sure. I’m excited about WebRTC just as you said, as an additional endpoint. I don’t think it’s going to completely turn the world upside down; you know we still got things to work out in terms of codecs especially on the video side. We’ve got issues in terms of browser compatibility but having one more arrow in our quiver so that people can get connected yet one more way is important. On this call, for example, I know I happen to be connected on an IP phone, and IP, I know Dave Michels is IP connected; others are connected on the wire line PSTN, others via mobile. You’ve got to sort of support all of that in a large enterprise because people can be anywhere in the world doing anything. So WebRTC will be one more, but it will be an important enabler and we see some ways to use WebRTC in some applications, more vertically. So for specific situations I think it will be very convenient where you do want to be in front of your computer or your compute capable endpoint and use an audio, perhaps video client plus have some application context in there as well; I think that will be very neat and open the door to some additional innovations.
In regards to spatial audio, I’ve been watching that for quite some time and I’ve been involved in demonstrations including Dolby’s and certainly it is neat, it is impressive, it is helpful. I guess the one caution I give is I’ve been a fan of high definition voice, HD audio for years and years. And I love having conference calls that are all or mostly in HD voice. I’d love to have conference calls that are all or mostly in spatial audio. But most of the world isn’t willing to work very hard at all to see an increment in audio quality, to obtain that. And so I’m just a little cautious – my own experience with HD is people hear it, yes they like it, it sounds great but I still want to talk on my mobile phone; so it doesn’t have it and that’s too bad. And I think that we’ll just have to wait and see what sort of traction there is, spatial audio works best if you’re wearing headphones on both ears or people --
Phil Edholm: Obviously it doesn’t work at all if you don’t have headphones on both ears or it’s a pretty impressive speaker system...
David Frankel: Yeah, I mean you can do it with speakers actually, there is some potential for that, but it’s much harder.
Marty Parker: Let’s get back to the question of purpose where an executive for example with her staff may insist on HD where other teams will have to make their own decisions. So I think it will be a situational thing. Let me just open up for one more question, I think Art you had a question about ad hoc, what were you thinking about that?
Art Rosenberg: Yes. David, there are times especially -- health care and other situations where time is of the essence and the contact between people to have a quick discussion and make a decision or whatever it is. It’s not something that you have to time to schedule; you just got to go and get it now and it’s not just one call to one person; it’s to the group if you will; however, wherever they are and however they can participate. It may not always be audio either, it could be video or whatever. Could I have your perspective on that?
David Frankel: I think it’s all dependent on the situation. Personally I think that it’s pretty rare that you’re going to get, I mean a group like this where we have eight people or whatever – 10 people all gathering. You’ve got to schedule that ahead of time if it’s really going to happen. But as you say, there are circumstances, certainly somebody mentioned earlier the notion of sort of every call being a conference call; that’s actually how I live. So if you make a direct dial to me or I call out it actually starts as a conference call with just two people. I can add people on if that happens to be useful and occasionally it is. There are circumstances like you describe that are vertically oriented. So one that we’re involved in is, for example disaster recovery. We have people that use our system where they have a predefined set of people that are responsible for certain kinds of emergency situations. And whether it’s on the web or even over the phone they can connect to our system and trigger an out dial to all those people on the list. It might be as many as 50 people or more. And you know you’re not necessarily going to get them all, but if it’s an emergency you need to get that alert out, you know as best you can, you want to have a conversation about how to handle it. So you can certainly use the technology in that way for those kinds of circumstances. But I think that for most enterprise conferencing we’re going to continue to see it dominated, not exclusively but dominated by schedule of calls.
Marty Parker: It’s interesting to hear your thoughts David about, again, the work flow-designed conference. The emergency would be a good example, thank you for that. So with that we’re at the end of our time and so David I’ll give you kind of the last minute or so, any closing thoughts you want to have about the value and the future of conferencing?
David Frankel: Well, I think the value is going to continue to increase as we increasingly go sort of virtual in the way we work and live. One thing I’ll mention – I mentioned briefly earlier that I’m very excited that we’re doing more and more with this multi-lingual conferencing. Very selective, not everybody needs it, but a lot of corporations and government organizations and so on are working globally and they’re needing to accommodate people speaking different languages. And so we’ve been working closely with the simultaneous interpreter community, the same people that you see working at the United Nations. In fact, the United Nations is a customer of ours and we are enabling people to have conference calls where people are talking in different languages. Back having conversations in different languages through interpreters and that’s just very exciting to me. I think we’ll see more of these niche applications growing out of sort of -- and beyond commodity conferencing. So I think it’s going to continue to remain exciting and strategic.
Marty Parker: Great thanks for your time with us today. Thanks to all the UC strategies experts and we’ve enjoyed sharing with you another podcast.
David Frankel: My pleasure to be here, thanks.