You can find Part I of this series here.
Cloud-based Meeting Options: Everybody is in the Game
I actually thought of going with a cloud-based service as soon as I started this job. With my background, as soon as I heard how we were doing things, I thought, “why make it this hard – why not just use GoToMeeting?” Turns out there was a very simple reason why we weren’t using GoToMeeting and wouldn’t be using it to meet this need today – GoToMeeting doesn’t to my knowledge offer any facility for connecting to H.323 conferences, and maintaining compatibility with our existing investment in Polycom endpoints was a must. So while I’ve had great experiences with GoToMeeting over the years, especially when I worked for a Citrix Reseller and used it multiple times per day to meet with and support customers, it simply wouldn’t meet all of our needs.
One of our users suggested we look into Adobe Connect. I’d never used it personally, but I knew it was popular in the education space. Aside from this user, however, the opinion of Adobe among those of us in IT at the university isn’t terribly good. I spent years having to make their bloated Creative Suite work in our computer labs, and we’re still reeling from a rather injurious site license contract Adobe forced on the university after an audit a couple years back. Still, I was looking for a solution to our problem and, at the end of the day, I didn’t really care where it came from as long as it met our needs and didn’t cost a fortune. Adobe Connect may well have been capable of meeting some of our needs, but it became clear that it would also require running software on our own servers to support it – something I wanted to avoid. So I kept looking.
A Lucky Break: Stumbling Upon Several Startups
I was having a conversation with a company about a telephone conferencing service, as at the same time I was looking into cloud-based video conferencing options, I also wanted to move us away from the expensive and not terribly easy to use campus-provided phone conferencing system. While researching this reseller, I noticed they also resold video conferencing services, so I asked about them. That led me into an extended discussion with a company called BlueJeans.
BlueJeans: The Tesla Option
Blue Jeans is an interesting company with a compelling service and an unusual name. I’m not looking to do a full review of their service, but if I did, it would be largely very positive. The one thing I would stress about the Blue Jeans video conferencing service is that it just works. In all of my testing across several cloud-based video conferencing providers, Blue Jeans was the easiest for even some of my very non-tech savvy users to work with. Its main claim to fame, in addition to ease of use, was that it could bridge calls between what might otherwise be incompatible communications platforms. It was also the first service I seriously evaluated, and I knew it could fulfill all of my requirements except one – cost.
If you visit Blue Jeans’ website and come away thinking you can’t figure out how much the service costs, you’d be correct, because you can’t. That you have to contact sales to even get a base price was the first warning that it might eventually prove too rich for our budget. The second was the sheer polish of their website, sales staff, and customer list. Everything about Blue Jeans communicates a clear message – they are a VC-backed company selling a premium service to customers with lots of money to spend, many of them VC-funded themselves. But it’s a testament both to the quality of their service and my satisfaction with it that they weren’t immediately ruled out the instant I discovered less expensive options.
The various pricing options I was presented with included a base price of $1,200 per year per named user host, with a minimum purchase of 10 host accounts. We were looking to purchase a minimum of 25 accounts, and at that level the pricing dropped to a $960 per year per host. Each Blue Jeans host account could host a meeting with up to 25 participants, and each of those could be using any compatible service or device, including H.323 endpoints. Pricing for H.323 endpoint support on competing services is typically done on a per connection basis, so in some ways this explained the high cost per account.
If I had to cite one thing about dealing with Blue Jeans that frustrated me, it would be their trial period. They offer a 14 day trial only, and while that trial is complete and allows you to use every feature of the service from a user perspective, 14 days wasn’t nearly enough for me to put it in front of all the decision makers I needed to show it to in order to propose spending tens of thousands of dollars. While my Blue Jeans rep was willing to schedule meetings for me after my trial ran out so I could demo the meeting experience, I was told in no uncertain terms that trial extensions were a no-go. I knew that was simply a matter of the right person needing to be convinced to say yes instead of no, but I didn’t care to push it at that point.
While I really liked everything else about the Blue Jeans service, the cost would have meant buying it simply to meet a subset of our existing usage – basically that of our frequent “power users”. Still, at this point in my research, without knowing just how affordable other options could be, Blue Jeans was still in the running.
Fuze: The Camry Option
At some point, I came across an online discussion of Fuze, or Fuzebox as they were called at the time. One thing you will notice immediately upon checking out Fuze’s website is their pricing is right out there in the open. $8 per month for a Pro account and $20 per month for an Enterprise account, with understandable feature differences between the two. Fuze even offers a free account level that would work for many people who wanted to conduct basic computer to computer or mobile device meetings, without the H.323 compatibility we would need. For H.323 compatibility, the Enterprise account would be required, at $240 per year per named host, along with the Fuze Telepresence Connect – basically an H.323 bridge purchased at a cost of $1,000 per concurrent connection per year. Simply having the pricing for all of these items available for easy evaluation was refreshing. I’m sure having the price for things locked behind a door that only your potential account rep can open has a lot of value for the vendor selling the service, but I can tell you that it is a frustrating waste of time for me as a customer.
The Fuze service worked quite well. So well, in fact, that because we had some users chomping at the bit to try it, we recommended they sign up for free accounts while we continued to evaluate our options. We also purchased a Pro account for me so I could fully evaluate everything except the H.323 compatibility. I was nearly as impressed with the quality of Fuze as I was Blue Jeans, and while we did have a few users have issues getting their audio devices to work with the service, I’ve seen the same thing with nearly every other online meeting service. So while I considered the Blue Jeans service to be superior to the Fuze service, I knew that, for the money, Fuze would be a better fit for us.
The things I didn’t like about dealing with Fuze were twofold. One, they would not give me a real trial of their H.323 connector – claiming they simply had to schedule any use of it for me. In addition to this being simple nonsense, it also made me feel like they didn’t really want my business. Two, many of the features they listed as coming with the Enterprise account, including custom branding and a success manager to work with my users on training, came with a pretty high initial host account buy-in – 100. We didn’t anticipate needing 100 accounts right away, although we figured we would eventually far surpass that. But the minimum buy-in presented us with a chicken and egg problem – how would we properly showcase the service to our users, stakeholders, and leadership without those features, and how could we get the budget for the purchase without showcasing it?
At this point in my research, I was torn between buying relatively few Blue Jeans accounts with all of the enterprise features and “success team” support at a price that would ensure it couldn’t expand beyond a core group of users, or buying quite a few more Fuze accounts but still not enough to get us the support from the company to ever push it to critical mass among our users.
What I didn’t know is that I was about to have a curve ball thrown into my research and plans to have this completed by the end of our fiscal year in June.
More on that in part III of this series, which will be published tomorrow.