Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Plug and play enterprise conferencing - real soon now?

Before I launch into this post, I should note that I'm talking about enterprise conferencing, rather than personal conferencing. There are too many times that technology discussions focus upon consumer use, and ignore the idiosyncracies of enterprise use. For example, a consumer blog post would just tell you to trash Browser X and get the newest version of Browser Y - which is of no help to enterprise users whose computers are locked down, and for whom Browser X is the only corporate-approved browser.

So let's talk about enterprise conferencing.

I recently attended a webinar on enterprise conferencing. The webinar was sponsored by a leading enterprise conferencing software vendor, and used the vendor's own tool. (For those who haven't figured this out yet, it was a sales pitch.) The theme of the pitch was that people are working remotely, and that work teams are distributed, and that you need some way to get these people working together. But this collaboration tool has to be easy to use.

Unfortunately, I was laughing to myself even before the webinar sponsor talked about ease of use. Why? Because it took a great effort for me to join the webinar in the first place.

You see, for some reason the enterprise conferencing tool is incompatible with my company's firewall. This is not necessarily the "fault" of the enterprise conferencing vendor, but it's something that has to be addressed. Enterprises take a variety of steps to ensure that their internal networks are secure, and sometimes the security methods end up locking out legitimate business traffic.

Well, I had a solution for that - Plan B. The enterprise conferencing vendor has an Android app. I'd just fire up the Android app on my personal phone and listen to the webinar that way. So I open up the app, and see the place where I'm supposed to enter the 9 digit number for the conference.

Only one problem - when I registered for the conference, I received a return email with a URL for my own use (this allows the conference organizers to track who actually attends the conference). And this URL included TWO 9 digit numbers. The Android app only allowed me to enter one 9 digit number.

I tried entering the second number in the Android app, and was told that this code had expired.

I tried entering the first number in the Android app, and my phone browser opened to the conference registration page. Nice, except that I had already registered.

This meant that I had to go to Plan C, and all that I can say about Plan C is that it didn't involve my Android phone, and I was unable to receive work emails during the time period that the webinar lasted. Don't ask me anything else.

Needless to say, this is not what I'd call "plug and play." If it can be this hard to join a webinar, what are the chances that it will easily work for a worldwide enterprise deployment? (Especially when the support boards include a lot of questions along the lines of "When will you support Linux?")

You'll note that I haven't named the enterprise conferencing vendor in question, although if you've read other stuff that I've written online, you'll know who it is. But this is not a case in which this vendor is bad, and all of the others are good. While you may sound off in the comments and say that your preferred enterprise conferencing solution is the best thing since sliced bread and that everyone should use it, there's another reader who would reply and say that the enterprise conferencing solution that you named is the buggiest piece of software ever and never works.

In the end, the standards bodies will probably have to get involved to ensure that enterprise conferencing will work around the world, on a bunch of platforms. You might not recall this, but it took a couple of decades to get email to work so that two people could exchange email with each other. And when connectivity first came out, it took a lot of effort for you to send an email from your GEnie account to someone's CompuServe account. Eventually all of that smoothed out, and now we don't give email communications a second thought.

Even before email, there was a similar challenge in enabling telephones to talk with each other. Call Sri Lanka? Heck, it was hard enough just to call someone in a neighboring state. But eventually all of that got worked out, and we all learned out to use area codes and country codes to talk to people all over the place.

But enterprise conferencing isn't quite there yet.
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