Who will win the epic battle for online meeting hegemony?

The pandemic has focused much of the remote worker experience like a laser on the lowly online meeting. Stalwarts like Cisco and HCL face intense competition from upstarts like Zoom and Slack as well as industry heavyweights Google and Microsoft.

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It was right around March of this year that most online meeting vendors saw a dramatic uptick in customer usage from around the globe. The coronavirus had spread across much of the world, so most workers were sent home until further notice to carry out their responsibilities.

It was in this short span of just a few weeks that the relatively sleepy category of Web conferencing and online meetings soared into near-mission critical status. With organizations suddenly being disbanded physically for the foreseeable future, businesses were desperate to minimize the impact of going remote, preserve as much workforce productivity as possible, and replace the physical office using leading virtual solutions like WebEx, Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.

The rest, as they say, is history. The transition was largely a successful one based on most data points available, such as this recent PwC remote work study which notes that 69% of employers find productivity of remote workers the same or actually better. Yet the heavy burden of day-to-day operations now falls upon a small group of product categories that weren't really designed for the way they're being used now, nor prepared to be the main communications and collaboration tool that most remote workers employ as their primary employee experience with others.

The response we've seen from the vendor space has been fascinating, as most of them step up and try to meet a new level of demands and remote work requirements, as well as mature existing capabilities in urgent functions like cybersecurity, safety, and privacy. These latter issues are real and significant. This author has undergone several unpleasant zoombombing experiences in recent months, as have many others, and that's just the tip of the iceberg as bad actors seek to make off with vital corporate information or cause operational disruption. 

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A Tale of Two Converging Product Categories

The world of digital communications and collaboration has long been complex, with numerous competing and overlapping categories of tools, from e-mail and telephony to team chat/instant messaging(IM) and mass collaboration tools such as enterprise social networks. These are all distinct types of applications that often only have limited interoperability and overlap.

However, it is two categories in particular that have become the stars of the show during remote work, and so the overarching focus of attention today all the way up to the executive team in most organizations: Team chat/IM and online meeting tools. One wouldn't think the two are closely related but together they have become the primary industry focus for live video meetings in particular. 

However, the connection actually isn't that odd. It's is partly due to heritage from when converged tools in the space were referred to as unified communications and partly because chat consoles have a tendency to be a natural center of communications, like e-mail was in year's past.

Team chat/IM, typified by so-called group chat solutions like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Workplace from Facebook -- as well as traditional unified communications solutions such as HCL Sametime or leading open source entrants like Rocket.Chat -- is an exceedingly convenient place to put online meeting features as it turns out. Text-based conversations and groups of people are already in play, the corporate user directory is a click away, and it's easy to contextually initiate an online meeting using voice or video in such a setting.

This has led to an environment where team chat/IM tools often interoperate or integrate with online meeting tools in efficient and useful ways. Slack, for example, has its own native video interface that can be launched within its chat environment, or it can just as easily launch a new session in many of the leading meeting tools that may have the extra features or user capacities that you need.

An Elephant in the Room: Microsoft Teams

All things being equal, team chat/IM and online meetings have been some of the more exciting spaces in the workplace communications industry, largely due to innovative and successful new entrants over the years like Slack, Zoom, Bluejeans8x8/Jitsi, Google Meet, RingCentral, Adobe Connect, and a host of others.

But none have had the incredible pace of user growth or high pace of R&D that Microsoft Teams has had. It also has the full weight and capabilities of the industry-leading and highly formidable Office365 platform behind it. To cap it all off, Teams is usually one of the least costly solutions on this list, due to its free edition -- which finally added video meetings recently -- as well as its inclusion as a standard application in the Office365 suite, so there is no additional cost to existing subscribers.

Together, all of these factors have contributed to the meteoric rise of Teams as a pre-eminent leader in the space and all signs are that Microsoft understands the significance of what it has accomplished. Microsoft has therefore committed to taking the platform as far as it can while the winds are to its back due to the pandemic and its leadership market position.

In other words, there is a strong argument that Microsoft Team is sucking the air from the room from other arguably as innovative solutions due to its superior overall market presence. All of this remains a somewhat controversial topic in the industry, yet there is also no denying that product management for Teams has kept up a blistering pace the last few years and honed an effective feature development pipeline this time around, in marked contrast to what its predecessor, Skype for Business, brought to market.

However, the online meetings market is also enormous. Due to remote work as well as vast and ongoing changes to the nature of the global workforce -- please see my recent research on the rise of the white collar Gig Economy, where nearly all such workers are entirely remote -- the market for team chat/IM and online meetings is vast, with the addressable market likely close to or slightly greater than 1 billion workers globally in my research estimates.  This is a vast space with room for just about everyone, especially those with differentiation that matters.

Related Reading: Digital comms is different for remote work: A complete guide

Unified Comms Redux: The Rise of Digital Communications Hubs

Which brings us back to the main topic: What does it take to win in the online meeting wars today and where is the industry going? It turns out, in many ways, these two questions have the same answers.

Though we've see with the original wave of unified communications, and now with the next generation of team chat/IM and online meetings converging, I've long noted there is a strong motivation and tendency to bring worker communications into a single, central application. At least this is the case with compatible modes such as synchronous communication (meaning largely blocking or interruptive of attention.) The benefits are numerous, including easier training, faster access, simplicity, centralized notifications and presence, and so on.

Along the way, we've witnessed a minimum bar for synchronous digital communications solution become established de facto: Solutions must be cloud-based, have a consumer grade user experience, support high quality video/voice/chat, file sharing, screen sharing, and especially for online meeting solutions have a partner network for integration with leading applications.

However, as I've noted above, this is the minimum bar now. Unfortunately, virtually all of today's digital communications tools were built to augment physical meetings and in-office presence, not replace them. That target has shifted and we need new capabilities that reflect the reality of remote work today, which is largely virtual now except for essential services. This reality has significantly changed the table stakes for what our digital communication hubs will become, at least of the synchronous variety (I'll address the needed evolution of asynchronous comms/collaboration apps subsequent to this piece.) 

Key Digital Communications Features for the Pandemic and Beyond

Here are the features we need in 2020 and beyond from our synchronous digital communications tools. Whenever possible, I've highlighted key example of how some vendors are already addressing this or have announced support for them:

  • Upleveled security and encryption. Remote work sites, especially home offices, have become a prime target for a surge in cybersecurity attacks due to their less hardened and secure nature. To address this, most vendors have proceeded to improve end-to-end security and encryption including notably Zoom as well as Cisco. Due to its high criticality to the CIO and CISO, we'll continue to see announcements related to higher communications security for the foreseeable future in solution across the board.
  • Detailed usage analytics. Administrators, managers, meeting organizers and other now wish to understand how digital communications tools are being used more than ever before. A good example of this is how WebEx has expanded their product during the pandemic to allow tapping "into deep insights about meeting room usage to influence not only cleaning schedules but also how a company plans the future office layout" and to drill down into real-time meetings data to troubleshoot meeting experiences as well as understand changing work patterns during the transition back to the office.
  • Text transcription. For years now I've underscored how synchronous meetings have a "knowledge evaporation" problem, with much of the conversations, ideas, and decisions lost to the air during voice/video conversations especially, except maybe for some note taking which rarely gets distributed after. Text transcription ensures both accessibility (those with hearing issues can participate) as well as the ability to preserve and record what happened in the meeting to be shared openly for consultation afterwards. This is a vital feature for remote workers so they don't feel isolated and keeps them plugged into what is taking place in the business by seeing what happened in other meetings. Microsoft Teams, for example, has had various transcription features for a while now and admins can help make them ubiquitous and accessible.
  • Robust remote administration tools. With IT unable to support users and their computers as easily in remote work situations, there is growing demand for the ability to provision or configure new communications capabilities on the fly with minimal to no physical intervention on the user side. Features for collaboration management, like Cisco WebEx Control Hub is a good example of the kind of push capabilities like this. For example, Control Hub can deploy Webex Assistant, their voice assistant technology, directly onto conference room equipment, even if if there are tens of thousands of devices. Bonus points: Voice assistants can be used minimize the number of times people touch the screen or touchpad in shared meeting spaces.
  • Fine-grained in-meeting controls. The ability to quickly mute everyone in a large meeting, or revoke everyone's presentation rights, and mass activating other features right within large online meetings has become important to ensure smooth meeting operation. Zoom added much requested features in version 5.0 in April to provide meeting organizations with more proactive and meeting-wide controls. Others will almost certainly follow.
  • Legacy call/meeting integration. With digital communications centralizing, we're also seeing traditional communications channels like corporate telephone systems being incorporated into online meeting tools so that meetings can be held together, whatever endpoint that participants have. For example, 8x8 recently added PSTN telephony support to Microsoft Teams to make it a more unified hub of digital communications.
  • Attention data. WIth the greater difficulty in seeing who is actually engaged in a meeting when it's not physical, it has become useful to know who is engaging for a variety of reasons, including managing the flow and effectiveness of the session. This has grown in importance as allowed meeting sizes in popular meeting tools have grown into the hundreds of participants. Solutions like Adobe Connect have measured audience attentiveness for years, though it's still not common in most other online meeting tools.
  • Meeting augmentation. Because the industry has not been on the front-lines of IT for years, the pace of product development was slow enough that it created a space for startups to add features to existing meeting tools to make them more productive, such as preparation, facilitation, note-taking, follow ups, and application integration. I track them regularly on my Augmented Meeting Services ShortList, but we will also see more and more of these features being rolled into or implemented the main applications themselves.
  • Dynamic rooms. For education and hands-on corporate events, being able to partition an audience into virtual rooms during a meeting to accomplish a task or wait for a key decision to be made can be invaluable. Zoom has recently added Breakout Rooms and Microsoft  has to support this capability.
  • Open collaboration platform. The digital communications hub is becoming a platform. While most existing solutions have some integrations, a few have decided to become full fledge development platforms in their own right. Microsoft Teams stands out the most in this regard, as mentioned above, and is being positioned as a true application platform in its own right, with all the attendant growth and ecosystem benefits of that strategy.
  • Post-"grid" meeting modes. The video grid has grown old and tired after a few short months of remote work. Some vendors, again led by stand-outs like Microsoft Teams, are changing what's possible by adding new views that are less fatiguing and easier for people to process. Most notably, Microsoft recently used brain scans to help validate that its impressive new Together Mode feature as putting less cognitive stress on workers. It's part of a full-on push to add new features to made online meetings easier and more enjoyable to be in. I expect to see responses from some of the other players in the space soon.
  • Real-time translation. For global companies, or organizations with people that speak many different languages (common around the world), effectively communicating online can be difficult if the meeting is not in your native language. Real-time translation right in the meeting will help address this.
  • VR/AR meetings. While there are a number of companies working on more immersive digital meetings, most notably MeetinVR, none of the leading solution provider yet provides meetings in virtual or augmented reality. But this will change, as the user hardware drops in costs and if remote work continues, we'll need better ways to meet than even the advances here can solve.
  • In-meeting AI support/enablement. One big dream of the combination of artificial intelligence and digital collaboration was to have a smart assistant who resides in the meeting and automatically pulls contextual information that is requested or mentioned, such as sales reports, current business data, and even images and video (particularly useful for financial and STEM-related meetings.) AI-based decision support systems could also be used right within the meeting. IBM famously wanted to enable cognitive collaboration with Watson, but the closest anyone has come that I've seen in a production product is Hendrix, and like much of the AI revolution, it's still fairly limited. I do however expect Microsoft will soon make further moves into this space.

Online Meetings: A Prime New Focus for Employee Experience

Remote work has now captured the focus and attention of enterprises like at few times before in history. One can see the changes that are already happening in the space. I am expecting a much more rapid and increased pace of product evolution to be sustained in these categories for the foreseeable future, especially as the industry attempts to find the sweet spot that will address the meeting fatigue and other issues associated with having to use these tools during much or most of our work day. 

Thus, it's actually the most exciting and vibrant time for this sector, since digital workplace and employee experience, at least for the IT department, rarely makes the top 10 of the CIO priority list, much less the online meetings space. This has changed definitively due to the coronavirus, now making a top 5 if not the #1 or #2 slot (usually after cybersecurity.) It's also great to see the increased focus by vendors, IT leaders, HR staff, and workers themselves as we attempt to genuinely work together to seek out and create a new and much better digital employee experience post-2020.

For more details, please be sure to read my latest in-depth research into what our post-2020 digital employee experience is going to be like.

Additional Reading