Friday, December 28, 2007

We Need Better Teleconferencing Software!


I work for a very large, very distributed company. For the first time in my career, I find that most of my meeting time is spent in teleconferences, rather than in-person meetings. Although I miss the face-to-face contact, I do think it is clear that teleconferencing will only become more prevalent, driven by various developments: distributed workforces, off-shoring and out-sourcing, and telecommuting.

Considering how critical teleconferencing is to getting work done for the contemporary knowledge-worker, I am rather shocked by the deep mediocrity of the technology. My employer uses AT&T Teleconference Services, which I have used for years at other companies, and it really hasn't improved AT ALL over time. Same old problems: everybody has to introduce themselves, and then hear a repetition of all the other people on the call; if someone puts you on hold, the rest of the conference gets serenaded with their PBX's muzak (I know there is an advanced feature that prevents this--nobody ever uses it); security problems if you have back-to-back calls on the same number, when the early joiners for the next meeting unintentionally "barge" into the meeting that hasn't yet ended. The fact that these old, well-known problems continue to be tolerated--never mind the failure to introduce cool new features--shows me a product category ripe for innovation.

What is needed--beyond a teleconferencing provider who cares enough about their product to continually improve it--is convergence between teleconferencing and web conferencing. In the admittedly limited sample of big companies I have experience with, web conferencing really has not taken off as one would expect. We probably have 10 teleconferences for every 1 web conference. Granted, there may be some discussions that simply do not benefit from any visuals, but as often than not, I find that there is inevitably a point in the teleconference where it would be very convenient to display something.(Maybe I shouldn't complain though--I have a long commute, and when possible, try to combine it with conference calls) In fact, we frequently wind up quickly emailing documents for the participants to review.

There are probably a few reasons for the under-use of web conferencing, but I think one big one is the tedium of scheduling them. I have used both LiveMeeting and Webex, and they both require meetings to be set up in advance, and the meeting URLs have to be distributed to all the participants. Ironically, ease of initiation is the one area where teleconferencing really shines, since there is no setup whatsoever required--just dial in to a well-known, persistent number and access code (unfortunately, there are some security problems associated with that, which we will get to shortly).

If teleconferencing and web conferencing could be tightly integrated, I think all the existing problems of both could be solved, and valuable new features added. An inventory of the improvements I envision is listed below:

Web conferencing is initiated automatically with the teleconference, and vice-versa

Just as employees receive their own, individual access code to the master teleconference number, so would they receive a standing URL for web conferencing.

As a bonus, teleconference/web conference addresses would be discoverable, for authorized individuals (see Security section for more discussion).

See who is currently connected, along with who was invited

Instead of taking an oral roll call, you can see who is connected. I bet introductions and roll-call takes a 5% productivity toll on teleconferencing time. So as mundane as this problem is, solving it would have a big payoff. Bonus feature--you automatically get a log of who was on the call, and even when they were on.

"Ping" invitees who have not signed on (via IM or phone call or email)

Another big time-waster is the need to "ping" the people who were invited but still haven't joined in 5 minutes after the start of call. Integration wouldn't completely make this go away, but it could make it easier--instead of manually adding their names to an IM or email, you could just click-select and invoke the "are you joining us" message. Bonus--an option for pinging could be a phone call with a pre-recorded message.

Display who is currently speaking

This feature would be very nice, though admittedly it would take some real technology, not just more integration. Still, it's value would not be insignificant--it can be very,very challenging in a large conference call to track the identity of the speaker.

Better security

Another thing that surprises me about all the corporations I have been at that use teleconferencing is the obliviousness to the gaping security hole. Since access codes NEVER change, anyone who gets one can join any call at any time. And given the lack of functionality, it can be very difficult to count and track all the beeps (not to mention, with quick-start calls, if the lurker is the first person in, they will be even harder to detect).

I would envision a layered security approach. There would be an option to provide a one-time URL for a given meeting. There would also be integration with network-based identity-management capability.

Bonus feature: for those occasions where the teleconference host won't be able to attend, instead of having to hand out one's standard host access code to a delegate, the ability to generate a one-time access code.

Conference Initiated But On Hold

I have worked in many different companies, and they all suffer, in varying degrees, from the problem of arriving late to meetings. To address this problem, the software needs to allow the conference to be initiatied but placed on hold (this enhances personal productivity, since participants won't feel obliged to engage in small talk while inevitably waiting 5 minutes beyond the appointed meeting time to have a quorum of participants available). The way this differs from current technology is that the leader, and even the participants, will have visibility to who has called in. That way, the leader can determine when a quorum has been reached, and at that point can take everybody off hold and into conference.

As a bonus, participants have the option to "break hold", if they want to talk as a subset. The key point is that everybody knows who is on the call, even if they haven't broken in to introduce themselves, as would be necessary with the current technology.

Auto disconnect web conferencing when done

A security problem I have noticed with web conferencing is that it is easy to forget to disconnect. Integrated software could have pop-up reminders, initiated when the participant terminates the call, if they are still logged in as a presenter on the web conference.

Icing On the Cake

Of course, a modern, integrated conferencing system would not have stupid anti-features, such as:

  • Inadvertently and embarassingly subjecting the rest of the teleconference to music when you put them on hold to take another incoming call.
  • Hanging up when you mean to take yourself off mute (inadvertent hang-up being an anti-feature of almost all current telephones)

Farther Into the Future

  • Development of an applet for mobile phones that provides most or all of the above features.
  • The development of full "telepresence".


The current state of teleconferencing reminds me of the state of web search or webmail before Google jumped in: minimally adequate, but long neglected, ripe for innovation and integration. In the short-term, it seems like some of the features I envision would require a highly integrated corporate PBX. In the long term, I hope they could be achieved via off-the-shelf handsets, or at a minimum, via standard cell phones.


  1. Now all you need is some venture capital ;o)

  2. And entrepreneurial mind-set!