webex + Cisco thoughts

I first read about the Cisco acquisition of Webex on Friday when a colleague sent me a post from SiliconValley.com – It’s more than we wanted to spend, but look how well it fits. It’s synchronicity in operation again of course because I mentioned webex in posting about a new application sharing company: Would u like to collaborate with YuuGuu? There are many other postings about this deal with a variety of views – some more relevant than others – Techcrunch for example: Cisco Buys WebEx for $3.2 Billion

Although pretty familiar with the acquisition history of Cisco, I must admit that I was surprised at this opening of the chequebook for several reasons.

I used webex quite a lot last year and really found it quite a challenge to use. My biggest area of concern was usability.

(a) When using webex there are several windows open on your desktop making its use quite confusing. At least once I closed the wrong window thus accidentally closing the conference. As I was just concluding a pitch I was more than unhappy as it clused both the video and the audio components of the conference! I broke my golden rule of not using separate audio bridging and application sharing services.

(b) When using webex’s conventional audio bridge, you have to open the conference using the a webex web site page on a beforehand. If you fail to do so, the bridge cannot be opened with everyone receiving an error message when they dial in. To correct this takes a about 5 minutes. Even worse, you cannot use an audio bridge on a standalone basis without having access to a PC! Not good when travelling.

(c) The UI is over complicated and challenging for users under the pressure of giving a presentation. Even the invite email that webex sends out it confusing – the one below is typical. Although the example is the one sent to the organiser, the ones sent to participants are little better.

Hello Chris Gare,
You have successfully scheduled the following meeting:
TOPIC: zzzz call
DATE: Wednesday, May 17, 2006
TIME: 10:15 am, Greenwich Standard Time (GMT -00:00, Casablanca ) .
MEETING NUMBER: 705 xxx xxx
PASSWORD: xxxx
HOST KEY: yyyy
TELECONFERENCE: Call-in toll-free number (US/Canada): 866-xxx-xxxx
Call-in number (US/Canada): 650-429-3300
Global call-in numbers: https://webex.com/xxx/globalcallin.php?serviceType=MC&ED=xxxx
1. Please click the following link to view, edit, or start your meeting.
https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/j.php?ED=87894897
Here’s what to do:
1. At the meeting’s starting time, either click the following link or copy and paste it into your Web browser:
https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/j.php?ED=xxxxx
2. Enter your name, your email address, and the meeting password (if required), and then click Join.
3. If the meeting includes a teleconference, follow the instructions that automatically appear on your screen.
That’s it! You’re in the web meeting!
WebEx will automatically setup Meeting Manager for Windows the first time you join a meeting. To save time, you can setup prior to the meeting by clicking this link:
https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/meetingcenter/mcsetup.php
For Help or Support:
Go to https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/mc, click Assistance, then Click Help or click Support.
………………..end copy here………………..
For Help or Support:
Go to https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/mc, click Assistance, then Click Help or click Support.
To add this meeting to your calendar program (for example Microsoft Outlook), click this link:
https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/j.php?ED=87894897&UID=480831657&ICS=MS
To check for compatibility of rich media players for Universal Communications Format (UCF), click the following link:
https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/systemdiagnosis.php
http://www.webex.com
We’ve got to start meeting like this(TM)

Giving presentations on-line is a stressful process at the best of times and the application sharing application needs to be so simple to use that you can just concentrate on the presentation not the medium. webex, in my opinion, fails on this criteria. There are so many new and easier to use conferencing services around that I was surprised that webex provided such a poor usability experience.

Reason #2: In another posting – Why in the world would Cisco buy WebEx?, Steve Borsch talks about the inherent value of webex’s proprietary MediaTone network. This could be called a Content Distribution network (CDN) such as operated by Akamai, Mirror Image or Digital Island bought by Cable and Wireless a few years ago. You can see a flash overview of MediaTone on their web site.

The flash talks about this as an “Internet overlay network” that provides better performance than the unpredictable Internet, but as a individual user of webex I was still forced to access webex services via the Internet as this was unavoidable. I assume that MediaTone is a backbone network interconnecting webex’s data centres. It seems strange to me that an applications company like webex felt the need to spend several $bn on building their own network when perfectly adequate networks could be bought in from the likes of Level3 quite easily and at low cost. In the flash presentation, webex says that it started to build the network a decade ago and it could have been seen as a value-added differentiator at that time. More likely was that it was actually needed for the company’s applications to actually work adequately as the Internet was so poor from a performance perspective in those days.

I have no profound insights into Cisco’s M&A strategy, but this particular acquisition brings Cisco into potential competition with two of its customer sectors at a stroke – on-line application vendors and the carrier community. This does strike me as a little perverse.

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