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Cisco revamps WebEx platform for unified conferencing

Cisco relaunched its WebEx platform to converge Web, video and audio conferencing and erase the technical headaches that come with virtual meetings.

Imagine connecting to a conference call from your deskphone with no need for participant codes or an attendant...

ID. Imagine connecting to that same conference call through your mobile phone's camera. Imagine hosting that conference call through a URL specifically tailored to you.

Cisco says this is the reality with its revamped WebEx product, which the company is touting as an all-in-one Web, video and audio conferencing service hosted in Cisco's cloud.

 Cisco said the goal of the new WebEx, which it relaunched last week , is to save users the headache that usually comes with scheduling conferences, from dealing with disparate conferencing systems to spending the first few minutes of the meeting (or longer) fiddling with technology.

"That's what's preventing this technology from hitting the mainstream," Rowan Trollope, Cisco's senior vice president and general manager for collaboration, said in a webinar. At the webinar, John Maass, manager of conferencing technology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., voiced his frustration with technical glitches as a conferencing customer. 

"We have about 42,000 meetings per year. Trying to schedule all meetings with internal and external people can be a nightmare," Maass said.

When the center first ventured into video conferencing, doctors and other users endured dropped calls, pixelated content and general technology-related frustration, he said. But after deploying Cisco conferencing services, users were much more enthusiastic about collaboration.

"Tech folks love it, far away people love it," Maass said. "The simple connection they can make, it's seamless and integrates in a way that meets everyone's needs."

Trollope said Cisco holds more than 50% of conferencing market share. But Cisco has increasing competition from a growing number of enterprise customers interested in buying hosted conferencing services where the provider can handle technical complexities for them. There are a growing number of conferencing options from companies like Vidyo and Blue Jeans, but WebEx is a well-known brand, which may give Cisco a leg up in this fast-changing market.

WebEx boasts features like mobile support for Apple's iOS, Android and Windows, wideband HD audio and desktop integration. But the big draw is the Cisco Collaboration Meeting Room cloud service, which acts as a virtual office and gives users a personal meeting room with a user-specific URL. The room allows other users to connect to a conference regardless of their location or device and without the need for a participant code.

"No need to search for the magic numbers for each individual meeting; your personal room details are constant and you can even 'lock' the room so only invited participants can join," Trollope said in a blog post.

The revamped WebEx is indicative of a cultural shift in enterprise communication, according to Howard Rheingold, an Internet sociologist and Stanford University visiting lecturer. Speaking at the webinar, Rheingold cited a 2013 survey that found that 87% of management track leaders ages 34 and younger prefer to work in a video-enabled organization.

"This is a little glimpse of the past and what's going to happen in the future," he said. "The challenge to enterprise is to embrace and integrate these media collaboration practices that the young are bringing in."

Trollope said what WebEx will do for conferencing is what Google Maps did for mapping. He said Cisco plans on opening the platform to third parties to build on Cisco's services.

"We think there's a lot of innovation coming from WebRTC and HTML5," he said, noting that a WebRTC version of WebEx was forthcoming.

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