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Free Web conferencing can save big -- but at what cost?

Sometimes the best things in life are free -- but is that really the case when it comes to free Web conferencing? We investigate the true cost of free Web tools.

With well-publicized dissatisfaction with contractual business services, midmarket companies are turning to lower-cost alternatives for their conference calling and Web conferencing business services. Can so-called freemium-modeled services really replace titans like WebEx, Microsoft Live Meeting and Adobe Connect? Enter the free or practically free business solution.

Midmarket companies find themselves turning toward open source free solutions to service their internal business functions as well as client engagements. In the days of shrinking budgets and razor-thin bottom lines, free is undoubtedly good -- but what's the catch? Mostly a lot of limitations: Most free conference services limit their bandwidth by controlling the number of attendees and features. Several Web conference alternatives operate under the grocery store sample model -- the first bite is always free, but to really dive into useful services, it'll cost you. Additionally, the free options rarely integrate with existing technologies for functions like calendaring and scheduling. That's a tradeoff some midmarket companies are willing to make, especially since most meetings are held with fewer than 10 participants and last around an hour.

The up-front limitations aren’t the only concern, however. "If you go back hundreds of years, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and I'd argue this is true about anything including this emerging technology," said Phil Simon, emerging technology expert and author of The New Small. While there may not be an invoice traded between you and the service provider, these companies are not nonprofits and are getting revenue from somewhere, be it by serving up advertisement views or possibly by harvesting your email and repackaging to spammers.

Monetizing free Web services

Free Web conferencing vendors are within their rights to change their revenue models at any time. "If it is open source and free, a person or an organization could be looking for an exit strategy on how to monetize. There are companies developing the software and then getting people using it, and then they try to sell out to a vendor because of the technology and the customer base. They can figure out a way to charge them later," Simon said.

When asked about the potential for a venture capital-backed provider to disappear in the middle of the night, Steven Hill, principal technologist at ToneCurve Technology LLC, said, "‘Too big to fail’ does fit some of these cases. You know IBM is going to be there tomorrow, you know Cisco is going to be there. I have no concerns about those companies, but they're only free for trial periods."

Simon agreed and pointed out that the same argument about vendor reliability is being made about cloud computing. "I would argue that it's true with anything. Companies like Microsoft are obviously not in danger of being acquired, but not everyone wants to do business with Microsoft. There is no guarantee."

While nothing has airtight-certain security (one has only to look at the recent Epsilon data breach), there are concerns about the sanctity of open source free services. "I might be having a conference call with 50 clients, and if I use a free and open source tool or service then what's to stop someone from hacking into it? If you're a hacker or a really technical person, and you want to get in on the call or access the data, that's a lot easier," said Simon.

Hill added, "Not to say that it's not possible, but if it's an encrypted data stream, you shouldn't have to worry about it being rerouted or listened to. Of course, those are the things you're looking for to have a certain degree of security.”

Given the slight risk of information falling into the wrong hands, some industries may need to rule out free open source conferencing completely. "If you're talking about medical, that's an easy call, or the financial industry where you may be discussing specific client portfolios or stock information or anything that might be covered under Sarbanes-Oxley. It might not even be an option for you to use anything other than a guaranteed secure method for your conferencing," Hill said.

Service and support for free Web conferencing tools

The biggest eyebrow raiser with freebies is the supply chain. Businesses lose some degree of power when they don't have the weight of the mighty dollar, leaving themselves open for possible service disruption with little to no recourse from the service provider. "God forbid you have a problem with connecting people, you can't really call an 800 number. Who's supporting it?" Simon said. "If I'm dealing with 50 customers and someone has a problem, I absolutely want to make sure that someone can address it very quickly. That has value to me."

Some services do offer support. For instance, when AnyMeeting user Carol Tice experienced a very visible technical shutdown of the company’s telecommunication service, she reported that AnyMeeting's techs solved the problem a little more than an hour after she reported it. The company managed expectations well, she reported, even though it was about an hour too late to save her presentation.

If you go back hundreds of years, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and I'd argue this is true about anything including this emerging technology.
Phil Simonauthor, The New Small

Tice was fortunate. While free service providers coax users with their luxe features and absence of contracts, Simon warns that you won’t have much power if you have a complaint or problem or the service should one day disappear. "You're not a customer. If Comcast starts to bill me twice as much for cable and Internet, I might have some legal recourse, but if it's a free and open source tool, you have no rights … you're not a customer, you're a user," Simon said.

Companies in the midmarket space aren't required to buy a Cadillac solution when they really just need a 10-speed bicycle. "If there's not a legal reason that precluded you from using it and it's providing you with the services that you needed, there's no reason why you couldn't. Free is the best price I've ever run into, unless they pay you back -- and I don't see anyone doing that," Hill said.

Hybrid Web conferencing solutions

If your company cannot fully utilize a free service like Skype for its conferencing needs, you can still look at levels of adoption by employing a hybrid solution and saving your Web conferencing budget for only certain types of calls. For instance, Hill and Simon both regularly use Skype for their teleconferencing needs, but Hill employs a professional service for the webinars he coordinates. Simon said he refrains from using free desktop sharing when meeting with clients because he doesn't want them to be subjected to a constant stream of advertisements.

"If a free service gets you 80% to 90% of the way home, then it probably makes sense. However, if that other 15% or 20% is sufficient to you in terms of importance that you should pay for it, then do it," advised Simon.

Just as with any business service vendor, CIOs should gather data before jumping in. The benefit of a free service, however, is that you're not limited to a free trial period and can experiment for as long as you want before you commit. Many of the free platforms are Web-based, so there’s no need to download software to make a test run or 12. "The first thing I think you should do is see what else is out there. Don't feel like you have to pay for something. Kick the tires, use Facebook, use Social Search and use Google. Find out what people are saying about it. Most of this stuff is Web-based, so it's not like you have to download a 200 meg file and install it," Simon advised.

"The way I look at it," he added, "if something's good enough, you might as well use it if it's free, but if it's worth paying for, do it and don't apologize for it."

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Yeah, free services are good, but you still get what you pay for. Hence, I always prefer using paid services like RHUB web conferencing servers. It allows me to brand and customize my web meetings as per my requirement.
We use both free services and paid services, and generally speaking the paid services become worth it the more people you wish to collaborate with or have on the call. If it's five people or less, using Google Hangouts works fine and costs nothing. More than that and the latency increases, and quality of the interactions degrade. Having said that, it also makes us much more conscious of the performance of paid systems. If the systems don't actually offer us a better experience at a participant level, we're not likely to use it. If it were up to me, I'd look to a model that was a per use structure, where we'd use a free option for low bandwidth calls, and then pay when we need to ramp up to a higher bandwidth/higher volume connection.