Microsoft is raising the stakes in the Web conferencing space by broadening and deepening the capabilities of its Live Meeting Web conferencing service.
The company, which introduced the new version of Live Meeting at its TechEd developer conference in Orlando, Fla., June 4, is a relative late entrant into a highly competitive market. So as it squares off against the likes of Cisco, which recently bolstered its own offering with the acquisition of WebEx, Microsoft is focusing on its core strengths, such as ease of use.
Microsoft redesigned the user interface for the service to make it simpler for first-time users to join a conference, according to Roger Murfs, director of marketing for Microsofts Unified Communications Services in Redmond, Wash. "And were allowing experienced users to open panels and drag and drop onto the interface in a way that makes sense for them," he added.
Microsoft also broadened the type of Web conferences that the service supports, ranging from ad hoc, two-person meetings to "formal trainings or public events with thousands of attendees."
For the purposes of corporate training, Microsoft updated Office Live to support event and class registration through public events pages. Users can register to attend a training session, receive confirmation via e-mail as well as any notification of changes, and after the event receive a thank-you and survey on the training event. For human resources compliance requirements, customers can incorporate testing into training conferences and perform advanced grading of those tests. Results can be e-mailed to participants, according to Murfs.
Microsoft also added richer record and playback options that include two-way audio with VOIP (voice over IP), live Webcam, and all aspects of a Web conference.
The third area Microsoft invested in is an integrated, rich media experience. Audio options for Web conferences expanded to include two-way or VOIP phones. Microsoft also extended support for its forthcoming RoundTable 360 degree camera, which "can completely capture attendees in a conference room and show all the attendees in a single strip," said Murfs. "If there are eight participants at a conference table and you have the RoundTable device in the middle of the conference room, all meeting participants can be viewed at the same time in a flattened view of the room."
Presenters can also now embed Flash, video and audio files in the conference.
Finally, Microsoft in the latest version of Office Live Meeting integrated the Web conferencing service with the conferencing capabilities it will deliver in the forthcoming release of its Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. That integration will deliver a consistent user interface for organizations that want both on-premises conferencing as well as access to the hosted Microsoft service.
With the latest round of enhancements, Microsoft is competing more intensely with Cisco, believes Roopam Jain, principal analyst of conferencing and collaboration at Frost & Sullivan, in Palo Alto, Calif.
"In the unified communications market Cisco is squarely positioned against Microsoft. We expect both to solidify their conferencing and collaboration offerings as part of their UC suites. They are increasingly encroaching on each others space," she said.
Jain estimates that Cisco with WebEx dominates the market with between 55 to 60 percent market share, with Microsoft a distant second at 22 percent market share. For 2006, the total global Web conferencing systems and services market was estimated at $886.2 million. "We forecast this market to reach $2.1 billion in 2010, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 23 percent," she said. "We expect to see healthy growth rates in this market as the technology continues to become more user friendly and gets increasingly integrated with other communication tools and enterprise applications."
The new version of the service is in beta testing now and will be released in the fall.