The Easiest Audio Conference Ever?
Ease of use is clearly the way of the future in conferencing, and simply clicking on a link in an email or SMS message makes connecting a snap.
We have all had a variety of user experiences around audio and web conferencing, some good and some bad. I was in a web conference the other day in which the administrative assistant had set up the meeting, but she had failed to send the meeting's host credentials to the executive hosting the conference. Furthermore, the admin had gone to lunch during the time the meeting was scheduled. After sitting on hold for about 15 minutes, the meeting finally started.
I attended another meeting this week with a video conferencing company, and I asked if we could join the meeting using HD video since I have a Cisco personal HD videoconferencing endpoint on my desktop. I was given two ways to connect: 1) dialing an IP address followed by two hash signs and the conference id, and 2) dialing a SIP URI which consisted of the conference id followed by @ and the vendor's domain. Neither way worked. So we just called into an audio conferencing bridge.
It seems that in spite of great advances in capabilities, conferencing is still sometimes hard to use. That is why I was rather intrigued when a company called Swivel Chair reached out to me claiming its mission is to "combine unprecedented Ease of Use and simplicity with Advanced Conference Security to disrupt the unattended audio conferencing industry." I've heard lots of claims like this before, so I thought I'd give it a try.
The company's CEO, Tim Reedy, invited me to a briefing using the company's "Call U Conferencing" platform. Tim and his colleagues are well known in the conferencing industry. Tim was formerly with Darome TeleConferencing, which was sold to MCI in 1995. He then went on to become president and CEO of ConferencePlus, which was sold to Arkadin in December 2011. Swivel Chair's other co-founder and CTO, Greg Doerr, has over 20 years' experience in the audio conferencing world, including serving in the CTO and COO roles at ConferencePlus. They were joined this year by conferencing veteran Phil Keenan, who was with VideoServer, Accord, Polycom, Nortel, and most recently with Mitel.
Two key concepts form the basis of the Call U Conferencing service: 1) conferences are more difficult to set up and join than they need be, and 2) conferences need to be more secure. The two recent incidents related above can attest that conference calls can be and often are difficult to set up. The issue with security is also a valid point--how many times have we shared our conference host credentials with others either for convenience or inadvertently through an email?
To overcome the difficulty in setting up and joining conference calls, this new service is dial-out only. Participants are sent a conference invitation as either an email or an SMS message that contains a link to the conference. To join the conference, participants must click on this link. Alternatively, they can go to the Call U Conference website and click a Join button there. When the link is pressed, the conferencing service will dial out to one or more telephone numbers the participant has told the system to use. Those new to Call U Conference who receive a conference invitation are asked to register with the service one time, which basically includes registering the email address and listing one or more telephone numbers the system should use when dialing out.
The Call U Conference service has a clever software-based architecture that runs on the Amazon EC2 cloud using CPU cores, memory and storage all provided by Amazon. It also has a distributed state machine that monitors call connections and call state so that if an Amazon location fails, calls are immediately reestablished by dialing out from a redundant software-based media server located in a different Amazon data center.
I challenged the Call U Conferencing executives about how the service could provide QoS in the Amazon cloud given the issues this cloud has had with jitter and latency. The way this is done is that the service monitors jitter on all of its distributed media servers, and should a particular media server show jitter rising beyond a specific threshold, calls are distributed to another media server with lower jitter.
When I joined the founders in a conference call, I received a normal Outlook invitation. I clicked on the link, and registered my email and telephone number, and at the time of the conference, the system simply dialed out to me. The host can set up a customized greeting which is played when the telephone is answered; the greeting invites a participant to the host's conference.
Setting up meetings is also very simple. In Outlook, one simply sets up a meeting as they normally would, inviting participants as usual. The only change is that the Call U Conference service must be invited as well. Once the invitation is sent, the service examines the participant email list, and those that are not already registered receive a second email from the service inviting them to the one-time email/telephone number registration. That's all there is to it.
In the conference call I participated in, the call quality was excellent.
For those desiring more security, the Call U Conference service integrates with an organization's existing Daon IdentityX security engine deployment. Using IdentityX security allows conference hosts to add various levels of security including pass codes, voice recognition, and image recognition.
In addition, if a participant does wish to dial in, that participant can get a dial-in number and a passcode from the web portal or in the mobile device app. However, the passcode is only valid for the duration of that particular conference. Local dial-in numbers are generated based on location information retrieved from the web portal session or through the mobile device’s GPS system. This allows the service to intelligently assign a dial-in number that will have the lowest cost based on the user's physical location.
The service is in beta today with launch in the US very soon, and in other geographies where the Amazon cloud provides capabilities later this summer and fall. A free trial is available for those that want to give it a test drive.
This is one of the easiest services I've ever used. Last year, our organization tried to implement a major conferencing company's audio conferencing service, and it was a disaster. Things just didn't work as advertised. So far, everything I've tested with Call U Conference has worked the way the website says it will work.
I also have Microsoft Lync Online integrated with InterCall's conferencing service. This service, which combines Lync Online with InterCall audio bridges, is also exceedingly easy to use. The concept is identical: conference links are sent out in an email, and if someone has Lync, they simply click on the link to join. Alternatively, along with the link in the email, a dial in number and passcode are included so that participants can manually dial in.
Ease of use is clearly the way of the future in conferencing, and simply clicking on a link in an email or SMS message makes connecting a snap. Both Citrix and WebEx use this methodology in their web conferencing products, at least for connecting to the web part of the meeting. WebEx will also dial out to participants once they join the web meeting.
It would be great if this concept of dialing out were extended to group and executive video conferencing generally. In a sense, ease of use for video is enabled when the video unit is connected to the PBX so that dialing and mid-call controls are the same as they would be with a telephone. For ad hoc video calling, however, video can still be a little tricky trying to connect, particularly when dialing is done using a remote control.