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Problems With Screen Sharing

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Last week, Jon Udell wrote a column for InfoWorld where he bemoaned the lack of a “Simple, single-purpose screen sharing” tool.

He talks about the fact that when you want to do nothing more than show off a piece of software on your computer to another individual at a remote computer, you shouldn’t have to worry about client downloads, browser compatibility, distracting window frames, or additional functionality of any kind. Just broadcast the contents of your desktop to the other machine. End of story.

At one point, he makes the claim that he’s “used every screen-sharing system and, from this perspective, they’re roughly the same.” Now, I don’t know Mr. Udell and there’s no reason for me to doubt his sincerity. But if he has really tried every screen-sharing system, he hasn’t had much time left to do his other work! The field for one-to-one collaborative web conferencing is so crowded with smaller players and new entrants that it is overwhelming.

I have forty vendors listed on my Webinar Success Vendor Links page. Robin Good has 24 vendors reviewed on his site (and we each have some that aren’t overlaps). David Woolley has an amazing 244 entries on his Think Of It Guide to Real-Time Conferencing. Yow! And there’s no consistency in the subject. Vendors change their software capabilities all the time. New entrants continue to surface (I just got notice of a new company in Alpha Test that is looking for early guinea pigs, developers, and investors. It is 1VideoConference and I haven’t looked at it yet.)

For just this reason, I generally hate dealing with the limited functionality, lower-cost vendors and products in the web collaboration space. I prefer to concentrate on the enterprise-class vendors that can support larger public events. That’s why I’m happy to mention Robin and David as alternate information sources when selecting collaboration software.

With all that preamble aside, Mr. Udell makes an excellent point. Screen sharing (aka application sharing, desktop sharing, frame sharing) seems like it should be a quick ‘n dirty function that doesn’t distract from the content being shared. It almost never achieves this goal.

The first and biggest problem is that there are a lot of pixels involved in forming a full screen image and they can change very quickly as you work with an application or multiple windows on a desktop. Graphics processors use very fast dedicated computing processors, memory caches, and dedicated video buses to shove things to your monitor quickly enough to give the illusion of smooth motion. The Internet is not that good at disassembling, transmitting, and reassembling huge amounts of information at those speeds. So the software packages are facing a technical challenge before they even get to their own functionality.

One of the best ways to lower this hurdle is to reduce the amount of information you send from computer to computer. I know that GoToMeeting has this kind of functionality built in, but I don’t know who else tries it. In this case, the software monitors only pixel changes within the share frame and sends updates to the receiving end. Anything in the image that is static doesn’t get updated. That can make for smoother cursor movement over a still background and nice fluidity for things like entering data in form fields. But the software is doing a tremendous amount of work to monitor the video image before each microsecond of transmission and there are still times when large portions of the screen change rapidly.

The question of screen resolutions and aspect ratios can’t be ignored either. People not only run their video monitors at different resolutions, but the laptop community now features a range of widescreen displays that changes the fundamental perspective of the screen image. If the sharing software has to spend time figuring out whether the broadcast image is on or off the visible area of the recipient’s screen so it can display and update scroll bars, that’s another chunk of processing that slows down the smooth update of the content.

But that’s still not the main thrust of Mr. Udell’s message. He concludes with the statement that as soon as some vendor creates a stripped-down screen sharing application that smoothly shows a screen image and has no other features, “the world will beat a path to its door.” I don’t agree. Business users tend to shop on the basis of every feature they can think of. They build RFI spreadsheets with dozens of checkmark boxes to see how loaded the software is. They don’t ever want to get caught at some point in the future with a functionality need they didn’t originally think of that can’t be done by their software. Then they would have to go through ANOTHER selection process in order to cover the new requirement, and nobody wants that. So they overcompensate on the front end.

And quite honestly, vendors can’t compete very well (ie: profitably) on a commoditized functionality like screen sharing without adding in some kind of marketing-visible differentiator. Saying you do only one basic task that everyone else SAYS they do (even if you really can do it better) and having no additional sales points is unlikely to get you to the point where enough people will even try you out so that you can prove your superiority in the mass market. If you want a real world example, look at all the web conferencing vendors touting their strong support for video conferencing and images of each speaker. I have talked to many of the vendors about this subject and they tend to say the same thing in off-the-record statements… It’s a cute marketing feature and all their prospects say it’s very important, but after the first month or two of product usage, the utilization of webcam speaker video drops to a very low percentage. Webcams don’t flatter the speaker in a home or office environment, they look unprofessional, and they often distract from the message. Plus, they’re kind of a pain to work with. And yet… try to find a major vendor that doesn’t trumpet their webcam support!

So how could a vendor profitably support Mr. Udell’s desire? I see one obvious path… Give away the basic functionality to gain market awareness and penetration, and then try to sell people on upgrading to a more feature-rich paid service. Let’s say that Citrix with its fancy underlying screen sharing algorithms wants to get more people hooked. They create a bare bones screen sharing application of the sort that Mr. Udell visualizes. No extra windows, no white boarding, no chat, no presence, no IM, no remote desktop access of the recipient’s machine. They give this away as a free download. Then as people get used to the fast response time and general look and feel, they can come back to Citrix and ask if it can support more functionality. Bingo, a new customer for the paid software.

As for me, I’ll stick with the vendors supporting full scale webinars. Registration pages, PowerPoint conversion, multiple annotation controls, question management, password security, email invitations and so on. It’s easier to differentiate the competitors, there are a smaller number to choose from, and it’s a more lucrative market financially. To each his own!

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With a background in software development and marketing, Ken has been producing and delivering business webinars since 1999. His background in public speaking, radio, stage acting, and training has given him a unique perspective on what it takes to create a compelling and effective presentation. Currently Ken offers consulting services through his company Webinar Success (www.wsuccess.com).

Problems With Screen Sharing
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