Webex Meetings Gets Complete Video Makeover

The big news coming out of Cisco's Collaboration Summit this week was the rebranding of Spark to Webex and a repositioning of the portfolio (see "Bye Bye Cisco Spark, Hello Webex Teams"). Along with the rebrand, Cisco announced out of the event that it has given Webex Meetings a complete makeover to evolve it from being content first to video first.

Cisco Webex Meetings is one of the most respected and most widely deployed online meeting tools. Because of that, it is sometimes viewed as a legacy tool that has fallen behind the innovation curve. In some ways, Cisco's strong Spark push has contributed to this perception; when one thinks of Cisco's innovation in collaboration, its team collaboration tool comes to mind instead of Webex Meetings. In actuality, the Webex Meetings engineering team has been hard at work evolving the product, and the results of that effort can now be seen in the new user interface.

Video at the Center

The biggest change to Webex Meetings is the product is no longer always content first. Instead, users have the option to have video at the center of it with content sharing being a meeting feature. At log-in time, participants can automatically join via video. This is in stark contrast to before where the content window was front and center and participants' video was a smaller window in the corner. In the browser or desktop app, the Webex Meetings screen shows video initially. Once the user is logged in, they can customize the display, move screens around, pin windows, make one larger, etc. On a mobile device the screen has a fixed display but the user still has some flexibility of which view they see.

The thought process that drove this change is that Webex Meetings is a meeting tool, so it should act like a meeting does. Consider an in-person meeting. People don't go into a conference room, not look at each other, and solely focus on the content. Typically, there are introductions, catching up on certain items, and then eventually the focus turns to content. Some people may ignore the content and focus their attention on a specific person. For example, in a customer meeting, a sales person might be giving a pitch and the sales manager wants to study the reaction of the customer so they ignore the content window and focus on that person. The customer, on the other hand, wants to understand the pitch, so concentrates intently on the content. The sales person wants to view everything equally.

Webex Meetings now creates that ability. After logging in, all participants can see each other over video and introductions can be done. Once content is ready to be shared, it automatically becomes the focus of the meeting. The customer can continue to focus on the large content window and see the other participants in thumbnails. The sales manager would most likely pin the customer video window and keep it large, and possibly put the content in the background since it's likely they know that presentation inside out and backwards. A single meeting with completely customizable views for every participant is now what Webex Meetings offers, with video at the center of it because that's how people meet in real life.

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Other Webex Meetings Changes Increase Usability

In addition to giving the product a facelift, Cisco has made a number of backend changes to improve the usability of the product and enable more people to participate. Webex Meetings can now support up to 75 participants on video devices, a threefold increase from the 25 it previously supported. Also, Webex Meetings now has multi-streaming so everyone can see everyone regardless of how they join. A single Webex meeting can aggregate workers that join via video endpoints, Webex Meetings, Webex Teams, and Webex room systems and Boards. Everyone in the meeting will have the same view regardless of video source, which is a big improvement over the previous version.

And Cisco's video devices now integrate with Webex Meetings for even more simplicity. When a video device is part of a scheduled meeting, users will see a big green join button on the device when they enter the conference room. Participants simply have to press the button to connect to the meeting. No need to type in lengthy meeting codes and URIs. And this feature is supported whether those devices are registered on premises or to the cloud.

Cisco is also adding proximity capabilities to Webex Meetings. Using the desktop app, users will soon be able to easily pair with the device to share content wirelessly and to join meetings.

And remember, as always, Cisco Webex Meetings gives participants a great experience no matter how they join -- even from third-party video devices or apps, including Skype for Business.

Mobile Webex Meetings Gets an Update, Too

Not to be left out, mobile users will also see a new look and feel. If you're like me and seemingly always on the road, you probably use the mobile Webex Meetings app a fair bit. Well, now your meeting experience will adjust your video layouts automatically, depending on what you're doing. If your phone is held vertically in portrait mode, the screen will show two main views, with the active speaker on top. If held horizontally in landscape mode, there will be an equal-sized grid view to view multiple participants simultaneously. If you'd like to zoom in on the active speaker or any other video participant, you can double tap on any stream for a full-screen view of that person.

High Quality Experience Has Not Changed

Despite its legacy image, many businesses stick with Webex Meetings because the quality is always great. Cisco is a networking company and understands how to architect the backend to optimize quality. Cisco offers a service called a "Cisco Webex Video Mesh" where part of their cloud service is deployed on premises to keep media local for video users. It's common for users in the same location to be on the same call. With most other online meeting solutions all video streams go to the cloud and back. So, a meeting with 10 people on various video devices all in the same location would result in 10 video streams going over the Internet to the cloud and back, creating unnecessary network traffic. With Video Mesh, all local users joining the Webex Meeting on a Cisco or third-party video device or the Cisco Webex Teams app are kept on premises and remote attendees or ones coming in via Webex Meetings are cascaded to the cloud. If the capacity of the media node is maxed out, it can overflow to the cloud for a true hybrid deployment, ensuring everyone can join the meeting.

Cisco has spent years building a global backbone to support the massive number of meetings done on the platform. No one (Cisco included) benefits if all traffic is backhauled to a single or pair of cloud resources. Instead, Cisco has deployed Webex points of presence (PoPs) in all major regions connect to the closest PoP so regional meetings stay local. For example, users in Australia would connect through Sydney. Once they are connected, traffic is carried across Cisco global private network instead of being an over-the-top service that needs to compete for bandwidth against all the other Internet traffic. This significantly reduces packet loss and latency and greatly improves user experience.

Webex Meetings has indeed been around a long time. Cisco has focused on improving user experience by building the underlying infrastructure to support meetings of all sizes. Now the front end has been completely redesigned. This isn't your father's Webex Meetings... or even your older brothers, and it's worth another look.

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