Microsoft Corp.'s acquisition of PlaceWare Inc. bore fruit Monday with the launch of Office Live Meeting, an online conferencing service that pits Microsoft against WebEx Communications Inc., Oracle Corp., IBM Corp. and a host of other players.
This first version of Office Live Meeting offers only few enhancements of PlaceWare's service. Also, integration with the new Office 2003 products is minimal. Users can download add-ons for Outlook and MSN Messenger enabling them to start a Web conference from the Microsoft e-mail and instant-messaging (IM) clients.
An add-on for Windows Messenger, the IM client required for Microsoft's corporate IM product Office Live Communications Server, should be available in the next six months, said Jennifer Callison, director of Live Meeting product management at Microsoft.
Integration with Office is a "very high priority," Callison said. It is high priority because Office is on nearly every business desktop. In addition to Microsoft's marketing dollars, the prime real estate should help the Web conferencing service win customers, she said.
"Our focus is on new customers, this is a new market," Callison said. "The game right now is about awareness and generating trial and growing the market overall."
What is new in the PlaceWare service is a Windows-based client that users can download. The client gives presenters more controls while participants get expanded viewing options and feedback tools such as chat, Callison said. The Windows client comes in addition to a Web-based Java client that PlaceWare will continue to offer for broad reach.
On the back end, PlaceWare, which operates as a wholly-owned Microsoft subsidiary, has increased scalability and reliability in a clustered server environment. Its systems in three data centers, which run on a combination of Windows and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, can now handle 250,000 concurrent meeting participants for a customer, according to Callison.
Microsoft with PlaceWare offers Web conferencing as a hosted service only, competing with WebEx and other players. Oracle and IBM not only offer Web conferencing as a hosted service, but also sell server software for companies to run their own Web conferences. Microsoft is getting ready to join that game as well, Callison said.
"We believe that the best strategy is one that incorporates both software and a service and that is our longer term direction," she said. Adding, however, that PlaceWare believes the hosted version of its service will generate the most revenue. Callison did not specify when Microsoft plans to introduce Web conferencing server software.
Microsoft acquired Mountain View, California-based PlaceWare in January. The company offers a hosted service that lets businesses conduct real-time, interactive presentations and meetings over the Internet. PlaceWare claims it has 3,900 customers that used its service little over 4 million hours this year until the end of August.
Most of PlaceWare's customers are in North America. This year the service will be marketed primarily in North America and Europe and in the middle of next year will be marketed globally, Callison said.
Pricing for PlaceWare's service has not changed and existing customers get this new release as part of their subscription service. Office Live Meeting comes in Presenter and Premier Editions. Presenter offers presentation tools, attendance reporting and application viewing capabilities. Premier adds capabilities for application sharing, printing and handouts, recording, and scheduling.
The service is available on a pay-per-use basis or on a concurrent user basis. The Presenter Edition costs US$0.35 per minute per participant for a pay-per-use license or $75 per user per month for a concurrent user license. The Premier Edition is $0.45 per minute per participant for a pay-per-use license or $150 per user per month for a concurrent user license. Volume discounts are available.