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Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom pledge conference room compatibility

Workers used to the flexibility of PC-based video conferencing during the pandemic won't have the same experience in the office's conference-room gear.

Microsoft, Cisco and Zoom must make switching among their video services on conference-room hardware simpler to accommodate a workplace with employees in the office and at home, experts said.

Representatives from the companies said they would improve interoperability among Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex and Zoom during a session at this week's Enterprise Connect conference. While the firms agree they must act, industry observers are skeptical the vendors will solve the problem.

People need a simple way to use one device to hold meetings on various video conferencing services, Recon Research analyst Jim Kelly said. That kind of compatibility would save companies money while accommodating worker choice. Smartphones are an excellent example for conference room manufacturers, he said. A worker can easily switch between apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams with a smartphone.

Cisco made a positive move when it added a Google Meet button to several of its Webex conference-room devices, Kelly said. With the switch, employees could quickly and easily join a Meet session.

"Ultimately, that would be the dream," Kelly said. "I just walk in a conference room on schedule and launch my meeting without thinking about which platform it's on."

The smartphone is a poor model for conference-room devices, said Ilya Bukshteyn, vice president for Teams devices at Microsoft. Having multiple video conferencing apps on a device complicates an IT department's job, as it must manage and update the hardware.

"It sounds like a dream," he said. "When you try to live it, it ends in a nightmare."

Instead, video conferencing services should adopt a web-based standard, like WebRTC, Bukshteyn said. If they did, conference room hardware could use web apps, rather than apps installed on the devices, to connect to Zoom, Teams and Webex. However, other panelists feared the web apps have fewer features, decreasing the benefit of switching between platforms.

Video conferencing vendors might never solve the interoperability problem, said Scott Wharton, vice president of the video collaboration group at hardware maker Logitech. For example, there's no universal client for instant messaging, even though it's a decades-old technology.

An Enterprise Connect 2022 panel
Executives from Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom, Poly and Logitech discuss video conferencing interoperability at an Enterprise Connect panel this week.

"In 2008, I actually started a company to solve video interoperability," he said. "The fact that I'm here on this panel shows that it was not successful."

Interoperability will grow in importance as companies try to accommodate a post-pandemic hybrid workplace. To be effective in such an office, manufacturers have to provide conference-room gear that can switch from one video platform to another like a PC, which people used while working from home during the pandemic.

"We've set the expectation with our user base that all the things they're doing are just going to work," said Jerry Blayne, a product engineer at AVI-SPL, a provider of managed audio-video services. "I don't think we've caught up as an industry."

Collaboration vendors have focused heavily on conference room features other than interoperability. Zoom, Cisco and Microsoft have tried to ensure a similar experience between in-office and at-home workers by providing the latter with a way to read the body language of conference-room attendees and giving those in the office better access to digital elements like the meeting chat.

Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily NewsWalpole TimesSharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.

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