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Webex to get virtual backgrounds, video breakouts this summer

Cisco will soon add virtual backgrounds on the desktop version of Webex, along with other features that will bring the platform more on par with Zoom.

Cisco plans to add three highly demanded features to its Webex video conferencing service over the next two months: virtual backgrounds on the desktop version of the product and the ability to create virtual waiting rooms and breakout rooms.

The company will give users the ability to blur their backgrounds on the desktop version this month. In July, Webex users will be able to choose images to display behind them during meetings, a feature called virtual backgrounds. Cisco already supports virtual backgrounds on its iOS mobile app and will soon launch the feature on Android.  

Also in July, Cisco will enable waiting rooms for all meetings in Webex. Hosts will be able to require that people wait in a lobby to be admitted to a meeting, preventing uninvited guests from crashing the event. The feature is available today for personal meeting rooms.

In August, Cisco will add video-enabled breakout rooms to Webex. That feature will let hosts assign attendees to small groups, which meet separately and then return to the main conference. Cisco plans to add the same feature to Webex Training, its e-learning platform, in the future. As of now, the training product supports audio-only breakouts.

Javed KhanJaved Khan

Users have been urging Cisco to add these features in recent months because Zoom already supports them. The head of Cisco's collaboration division, Javed Khan, and other Cisco representatives confirmed the targeted release dates this week.

Cisco did not mention the features in press materials released at this week's virtual Cisco Live conference. Instead, Khan's keynote focused on things like a new AI note-taking feature called the Webex Assistant.

Cisco is offering a 90-day free trial of the Webex Assistant to all customers, even those with free accounts. The service transcribes meetings and helps users flag decision points and items to follow up later.

But it may take a while for Cisco to get buy-in from customers for the new feature.

"I might test it; however, it would be a while before we adopted something like this," Donna Morefield, an IT business analyst for the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, said about the Webex Assistant.

Morefield is more interested in Cisco addressing shortcomings such as the lack of waiting rooms and video-enabled breakout rooms in Webex Training. She also wants to be able to play audio from a video embedded in a PowerPoint shared in a meeting.

Cisco looks to rebrand Webex Teams

Meanwhile, Cisco is moving away from the name "Webex Teams" for its collaboration app. At Cisco Live, the company began referring to the service as "the unified Webex app."

In an interview, Khan confirmed that Cisco was reevaluating the branding of the product and would likely drop "Teams" from the name. Cisco changed the name of the product from Cisco Spark to Cisco Webex Teams in 2018.

Khan acknowledged the name caused confusion because of its similarity to the competing product Microsoft Teams. "Branding decisions are never easy, but we want to use the term 'Webex app' a lot more moving forward," he said. 

The app includes messaging, video conferencing and external phone calling. However, the product's video conferencing features are still not on par with the separate Webex Meetings.

For example, today's Webex Teams doesn't show as many video feeds on screen at once as Webex Meetings. Also, when breakout rooms and virtual backgrounds on the desktop launch this summer, they will be available only in Webex Meetings.

Cisco makes security, admin enhancements

Also at Cisco Live, the company unveiled new security features for Webex. The company will let customers apply data loss prevention (DLP), e-discovery and legal hold services to Webex meeting recordings and transcripts.

Plus, Cisco recently upgraded to a more sophisticated form of encryption for Webex called GCM. Zoom began using the same encryption protocol last month.

Finally, the company unveiled enhancements for its Webex Control Hub administrative panel, including the ability to integrate the cloud-based tool with on-premises calling infrastructure.

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