Microsoft's official debut of its renamed, rebranded Office Live Meeting last week ushered in a new era of Web conferencing.
For its part, Microsoft hopes the addition of a new Windows-based interface to the service, known formerly as PlaceWare Conference Center, along with enhanced meeting management capabilities and the ability to customize the service, will make Web conferencing more palatable for millions of Windows and Office users,and their solution providers,worldwide.
At the launch, Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of realtime communication services at Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., debuted the new Windows-based client, Windows conventions and toolbar as well as basic integration with the forthcoming Office 2003.
The service features enhanced meeting management tools such as live polls and supports meetings of up to 2,000 participants. It will allow co-workers and partners to exchange ideas, share information, mark up files and collaborate on applications using whiteboards, Microsoft said.
Like other services such as WebEx Communications' self-named offering, Office Live Meeting allows users to schedule live seminars and meetings using a Microsoft Outlook add-on, the company said. Microsoft also offers an add-on for PowerPoint. Audio support is offered as a separately priced option.
The current service offers limited integration with Microsoft Office; however, Microsoft is intent on integrating it tightly with the Office interface and Office System 2003 components such as the forthcoming Office Live Communication Server, observers said.
While Microsoft's planned .Net MyServices platform has virtually faded into obscurity, the emergence of Microsoft services such as MapPoint and Office Live Meeting,and tighter integration with the company's desktop and server applications,will give channel partners a more compelling reason to deploy services, observers said.
"While Microsoft continues to host some applications and even acquire some new ones, it seems to be limiting its new application hosting efforts to services that specifically support its software products," said Rob Helm, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash-based company that publishes a newsletter by the same name. "Hosted applications represent an opportunity for partners that build on Microsoft's platform, and Microsoft has tapped partners for things like hosting its CRM application."
|PLAYERS IN THE WEB CONFERENCING ARENA|
> Microsoft Office Live Meeting
> Raindance K2 service
Available Jan. 2004
> Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing
Raindance, for instance, is beta-testing an enhanced service code-named K2 that will provide integration with Microsoft Outlook and an open API that will enable users to hook into enterprise applications, said Carolyn Bradfield, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Raindance, Louisville, Colo. That enhanced service will debut in January.
San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx would not comment on specific future plans, but a company spokesman said adding WebEx capabilities to enterprise applications and service offerings is a strategic distribution avenue for WebEx's services and network.
Office Live Meeting is a service offering only. Competitors that ship enterprise Web conferencing for in-house use are also offering tighter integration with desktops and enterprise applications,Centra Software's recently released Centra 7 platform, for example. Meanwhile, Citrix Systems recently debuted its Metaframe Access Suite with Web conferencing features.
It's unclear how well Office Live Meeting will sell out of the gate. According to a 2003 survey of 184 IT decision makers by Summit Strategies, 44 percent of respondents said they are using or intend to use application hosting and management services within the next year. About 25 percent said they currently use these services. But 43 percent of all respondents have no plans to use those services, and 13 percent have evaluated them but decided not to take them on.
"NetMeeting-type functionality can be useful. However, in the small to [midsize] market, you generally have a less sophisticated user and nowhere near the IT staff to support operations," said Michael Cocanower, president of ITSynergy, a solution provider based in Phoenix.