CallWave's Fuze Kicks Web Meetings Up a Notch

IP-based service combines high-def imaging with collaboration tools, presence, and IM —and packages it for mobile devices as well as PCs.

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Sep 25, 2008
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Web conferencing/collaboration start-ups are arguably a dime a dozen. We’ve written about a few here. Their services all work, more or less—given a reasonable Internet connection. Each has its pros and cons. Each has its differentiators.

Do we need more? CallWave thinks so.

CallWave is not exactly a start-up. The company launched its first product, the Internet Answering Machine, back in 1998. But it has recently "reinvented" itself as a purveyor of unified communications software as a service (SaaS) products.

The company’s Fuze Online Meetings, a Flash-based hardware- and browser-agnostic Web conferencing service introduced earlier this month, already stands out in a crowded market.

Fuze integrates conferencing, Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS)-based presence and IM, and extends all these capabilities into the mobile realm. The mobile component is one key differentiator. The other is Fuze’s "high definition" capability, which goes beyond the ability to transmit HD video in Web conferences.

As an introductory offer, you can get Fuze for $29 a month or $228 per year per seat. But Greg Saiz, the firm’s director of product marketing, says the price will likely go up.

CallWave has in effect been having a second coming out recently.

In the past six weeks, it has 1) acquired Boston-based WebMessenger, a provider of enterprise messaging and presence solutions enabling desktop collaboration with BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and other smartphones, 2) launched Fuze, which incorporates some of the WebMessenger functionality, and 3) introduced the first Fuze mobile client, for the BlackBerry platform.

Coming very soon: Fuze clients for iPhone and Windows Mobile. Coming a little later: integrated webcam video conferencing. Fuze can already accommodate Skype (in Skype-to-Skype mode) and can bridge Skype and PSTN callers in the same conference. Later the company will add integration with enterprise VoIP systems.

CallWave began life as a student project at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s. (The company recently moved from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.)

In those almost-forgotten days of dial-up Internet, CallWave supplied a solution to a common problem: when you were connected to the Internet, if you only had one line, you couldn’t receive phone calls. Its Internet Answering Machine allowed customers, mostly residential, to forward ring-busy calls to CallWave, which took voice messages.

You might think that such a product had long since outlived its usefulness. Not so. The company still sells the service. In fact, Saiz can’t help referring to it as a "cash cow."

It is a cash cow that has put $50 million in the firm’s bank account and left it with no debt. All of which positions it perfectly to pursue the new strategy, he says.

CallWave is led by president and CEO Jeff Cavins, a veteran of the tech industry with 20 years of senior management experience. The company also boasts a board of directors with a who’s who of industry luminaries.

The board includes, among others: CallWave co-founder and chairman Peter Sperling, also co-founder of the University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the U.S.; Jerry Murdock, managing director and co-founder of high-tech investment firm Insight Venture Partners, and; Manny Rivelo, a senior member of the Cisco Development Council.

So what does the reinvented CallWave have to show?

Saiz recently gave us a demo of the Web conferencing part of Fuze. We did not test the Skype functionality and were not able to test the OCS integration features—you need an OCS server for that. But what we saw impressed.

Our test system was a late model dual core Dell laptop connected to a 5-Mbps cable modem service—so no processing or throughput bottlenecks. The audio connection was PSTN (actually Vonage at our end, but through a CallWave PSTN conference bridge.)

The first thing that impressed: no delay for downloading and installing software. Because Fuze was built on Flash, there is nothing to download. And it works with Windows, Mac, Unix, Linux and all popular browsers.

When we logged into the Web conference ahead of making a voice connection, Saiz used the chat function to ask for our telephone number so he could "fetch" us into the meeting. The fetch function is a simple but important feature. It means meeting conveners can call participants to bring them into a conference.

"We were really focused on usability when developing Fuze," Saiz says. "And fetch just makes it easier to get a meeting started. Something like half of all Web conferences start late because participants have trouble logging in, they lose the number or they’re just late. So fetch really helps bring people in quickly."

Conveners can have content prepared for use in the conference. Each item appears as a tab across the main window in the interface.

It’s also possible for the conference leader to push out a full-screen mode. A pop-up on participants’ screens asks permission. When they click OK, the Fuze interface takes over the entire browser window, which now fills the screen. Pressing Escape returns to normal view.

We started by looking at a PowerPoint presentation. At one point, Saiz zoomed in on a slide. It’s a key feature of the product. The crucial differentiator is that Fuze sends HD-resolution images—not just with video but any content—so when you zoom, the image does not become fuzzy or pixilated.

Later in the demo, he wanted to show us what the Fuze screen on a handheld looked like—very similar to the desktop interface. One slide included an image with several handhelds, but none of them big enough to be able to make out much detail. By zooming in, though, it was possible to get a good view.

One target vertical market for Fuze is health care, so Saiz included an example of an x-ray of a human hand, about a 20-MB file. By zooming in above 100 percent, it was possible to quite clearly see a small bone spur on one pinky finger.

"So an emergency room doctor, for example, could send the x-ray off to a specialist on call or a specialist on the other side of the world, and they could collaboratively come up with a diagnosis," he says.

Fuze includes standard annotation tools—lines, shapes, arrows, freehand, text—which meeting leaders or participants given permission by the leader can use to mark up any type of content. And the annotations can be saved.

Another target vertical is creative professionals. The makers of a trailer for the Hollywood movie Traitor, actually used Fuze to collaboratively edit, with participants in Toronto, Europe, California and North Africa. This is only possible because Fuze can show the video in HD.

Saiz uses the finished trailer to show how creators might have used it, marking up individual frames using the annotation tools to show problems and areas to be tightened up. Fuze even displays a small icon on the progress bar below the video window to show where each annotation occurs. So collaborators can tab ahead (or back) from one annotation to another.

The video, by the way, played perfectly in what looked like HD resolution in full-screen mode—no interruptions for buffering, good synchronization of audio and video.

The only glitch in the demo: one high resolution image Saiz wanted to show would not display at our end. It wasn’t clear what the problem might be, but it couldn’t be bandwidth issues since HD video played over the connection with no problem.

Much was missing from the demo. We did not see the mobile functionality, OCS integration or Skype-PSTN bridging. All are crucial to CallWave’s value proposition, so the jury to some extent remains out.

With a mobile client, which only Fuze account holders can download, meeting organizers could control meetings from a handheld connected over a cellular network and even send or receive HD video—given 3G or 4G bandwidth.

Saiz concedes that in this regard, the CallWave technology is outpacing what end point devices can do or users want. "But that’s where we think things are headed in the next five years or less," he says.

CallWave believes its technology will help take mobile users to the next stage of connectivity. They already have e-mail with BlackBerry and other push mail products and services. Now they will have presence and, eventually, a kind of persistent chat, Saiz says.

At the time of writing, the company was "days away" from posting an iPhone Fuze client at Apple’s AppStore. A Windows Mobile client will follow.

Adding webcam video conferencing—by using one of a few already existing third-party snap-in Flash tools—is also on the planning horizon.

In a Fuze conference involving OCS users, the right-hand panel in the interface that lists invitees would also show their presence and allow participants to IM each other from within Fuze using internal or federated IM systems such as Windows Mobile or AOL.

The Skype capability means conference organizers can take advantage of Skype’s higher-bit rate audio, Saiz points out. But bridging PSTN and Skype users in effect "drags the quality down" to the lowest common denominator, i.e. PSTN.

Does CallWave have something no other competitor has? We’re not sure—there are so many competitors. But Fuze does appear to work well, it’s simple to set up and use, the fetch and HD zoom functions are brilliant and the mobile capabilities, whether or not they’re unique, will be increasingly important going forward.

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