Why You Cant Trust A Webex Recording
Did you know that your Webex recording might not capture what you saw and heard during your session? Let’s examine why.
My discovery stems from personal experience. I think you’ll find it instructive.
We start with the basics. I moderated a client webinar set up on Webex Events (that is the webinar version of their collaboration software, distinct from their peer-level meeting version). All went well during the webinar, without any notable tech issues. Several presenters participated from various locations around the world. Participants joined from many more countries. I had no complaints or reports of audio/video problems.
We recorded the webinar using the built-in Webex recorder and saved it to our Webex account on the cloud, as usual. When I reviewed the recording, everyone sounded great except for one presenter. Every time this person spoke, the audio was garbled to the point of being unintelligible. It’s important to remember that he sounded just fine in the live session. And that everyone else on the recording sounded fine. What the heck could cause the recording to repeatedly fail to capture what we all heard in the live session, and only have the symptom appear for one presenter?
I filed a support ticket with Webex and went through the usual obligatory rounds of confirming details, having it kicked up to higher levels of support investigation, and collecting log information from the affected presenter’s computer. I was assured that the Cisco engineering team was working on the case and that they would update me on the status.
To Cisco’s credit, they did keep me in the loop to ensure that the case was still open. Every few days I would receive a new email from my support contact informing me that they were still investigating. This went on for one month.
At the end of the month, I received the following reply:
Received an update from the Engineering team and they found that the garbled audio for one of the presenter happened because of the packet loss from speaker to server.
We appreciate your patience on this matter and understand the importance of this recording.
Engineering team has worked to the best of their efforts and apologizes for the inconvenience caused.
Kindly let me know if there is anything else we can help you with and feel free to email me.
I wrote back that I was confused. First of all, I could not tell whether this was a brush-off and that “Engineering team has worked to the best of their efforts” meant that they had determined there was nothing they could do and that the ticket was being closed without a fix. If that’s the resolution on a case, I think it needs to be much more explicit. (My interpretation was correct. That was indeed what they were telling me.)
My bigger confusion came from the statement that the underlying cause was packet loss from speaker to server. If the originating signal coming from the presenter’s computer up to the internet was bad, why wouldn’t we have heard that in the live session? His signal goes up to the server in the first place, where it gets redistributed back down to each participant’s computer. Shouldn’t we have heard the same garbled sound the recording captured?
When I posed this question to my support contact, I received the following breathtaking reply:
Server received audio data, if there is uplink loss, will do FEC mechanism to recover the lost packets, but it only apply to attendee, not for recording. If use latest recording solution video centric, it have FEC for recording as well.
My goodness, there is a lot to unpack there. I am no network engineer. FEC was a meaningless acronym for me. I looked it up and found that Forward Error Correction is a methodology used to compensate for the fact that the internet sometimes loses packets of data that get sent from one point to another. FEC appears to be particularly useful for WebRTC streams of audio/video media.
I can build a mental image of Webex “pulling” the data stream up from the presenter’s computer, then “pushing” it out to all the listening attendees on the webinar. It would appear that the FEC compensation for missing data occurs during the “push” side of the operation, so listeners don’t hear the dropouts that occurred during the “pull” operation. But the recorder doesn’t benefit from that extra FEC correction step, so it captures the uncorrected, lossy data stream.
Which takes us to that final sentence where I was told that if only I had used “latest recording solution video centric” all would have been well. I had to do a little more Googling to get to the bottom of this one. It turns out that earlier this year, Cisco added an option to their network recording options. If you use a supported browser, and you have the latest version of Webex, and you record to the cloud in MP4 format, and your meeting ONLY includes webcam video without any document shares or whiteboard, then you can record in Video Centric mode, which applies the error correction. By the way, if you share a video clip, it will work for certain video formats - but only for Webex Meetings and not Webex Events. Neat.
So there you have it. The Webex recording you save online may or may not have the same quality that you saw in the live session. It may be unlistenable. Good luck with that.
Technorati Tags: Cisco Webex
Does Your Webinar Software Make Sense?
Are you familiar with the old chestnut about how there is nothing so uncommon as common sense? If you want proof of its validity you don’t have to look much further than your favorite webinar platform.
Never assume that web conferencing features will work the way you expect them to based on common sense. Test EVERYTHING you intend to rely upon, starting with basic scheduling and moving through the in-session experience, recording, reporting, and participant communications.
Without thinking very hard, I can conjure up a depressingly long list of examples:
- In Zoom, you can import registrants to a webinar from a CSV file. So obviously, if you set up registration for a meeting, you can use the same process to import registrants to your meeting… It’s just common sense! Nope. A meeting with registration enabled does not allow file import of registrants.
- In Zoom, you can separate meeting participants into breakout rooms during your session. So obviously, if you run a webinar you can use the same process to separate attendees into breakout rooms… It’s just common sense! Nope. Webinars don’t support the concept of breakout rooms.
- In Webex Events, attendees can set their Chat selector to “All Attendees” to share messages with the entire group. So obviously, hosts and panelists can see those messages… It’s just common sense! Nope. Hosts and panelists are not “attendees,” so they cannot see the messages or capture them in a local chat log file.
- In Webex Events, the host can save a copy of the Chat log to a file on disk, as well as a copy of the Question log to another file. So obviously, they default to the same save folder on the disk… It’s just common sense! Nope. Each file has a different default save location.
- In Adobe Connect, the presenter can use an arrow icon to point at something on a slide. So obviously, the size and orientation of that arrow is the same on attendee computers, otherwise you could never be sure what else you are covering up with the arrow… It’s just common sense! Nope. Participants using a web browser interface see a different arrow icon than participants using the installed app. The arrows are a different size and shape and point from opposite directions.
- In GoToWebinar, you can place a predefined dropdown selector for a registrant’s country on your webinar registration form. So obviously, the list contains all the major countries with significant populations who might attend your webinar… It’s just common sense! Nope. People living in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq cannot find their country in the selection list. It doesn’t even have an option for “Other” that they can write in.
- In BigMarker, if you upload slides or a PDF to show to attendees, you see the content and can verify that everything looks correct. So obviously, attendees see the same image on their screens… It’s just common sense! Nope. Attendees see your slide with the addition of a BigMarker logo overlaying your content in a corner of the display area.
- In ClickMeeting, you can share the results of interactive polls with your attendees, just as in every other webinar platform. So obviously, you can suppress the number of raw votes and only show percentages if you need to cover up the fact that you don’t have many attendees… It’s just common sense! Nope. Poll results always show both the percent and number of votes.
This doesn’t even scrape the surface. I could go on and on. But you get the idea. The responsibility is yours to test every… single… component of your webinar technology to make sure it will work the way you think it obviously must.
If you don’t like the way something is implemented, TELL THE VENDOR. They make product development decisions based on the number of user grievances they get. If you don’t complain, you won’t ever see an update.
Technorati Tags: web conference
An Updated Look At Zoom Webinars
Zoom has become ubiquitous over the last several months of global work from home operations. Has Zoom’s widespread adoption as a peer-to-peer conferencing tool led to greater use of Zoom Webinars for presentation-oriented events? I can’t find any hard data to answer the question, but it certainly feels that way. After years of almost no interest in Zoom Webinars from my clients, I now see frequent requests for that platform.
This has given me the opportunity to revisit my early impressions of Zoom Webinars from three years ago. Has the product matured? Have they incorporated design improvements learned from years of practical application in the field?
In certain specific areas, I’m pleased to say yes. Typed Chat and Q&A functions work more intuitively these days. Reports are no longer jumbled together into one big worksheet with sections that don’t match up under consistent column headers. So hooray for that!
But in other ways, I remain frustrated with the technology. The webinar-specific product still reflects a lack of clear intentional design. You can tell that functionality has been added in a piecemeal fashion, without attention to logical groupings or workflow efficiency. It makes the product more difficult than it should be to learn and use properly.
The main strength of Zoom Webinars is the strength of Zoom Meetings…. The participant experience is smooth, uncluttered, and to repeat a phrase you hear a lot when people talk about Zoom: “It just works.” It’s easy to join a webinar, easy to turn on your webcam and microphone, easy to share a screen. Screen sharing and video camera performance is very good. Part of that is inherent in the performance advantages of an installed client over a browser-based solution. Part of it comes from the fact that this was the design goal of Zoom from its founding.
The problem areas are mostly seen by administrators and hosts working behind the scenes. Few of the issues are actual bugs… It’s mostly a case of things just being frustratingly restrictive, inflexible, confusing, or poorly designed.
I’ll start with a situation I ran into with one of my early webinars in Zoom. My client wanted to use Breakout Rooms in their event. It turns out that Breakout Rooms are not available in webinars… They are only enabled in meetings. This is a pity, as the functionality is perfect for controlled sessions with presenter and attendee roles. The bigger problem is finding that limitation.
The online help documentation for Breakout Rooms mentions meetings, but that term is loosely applied across different help articles in the Zoom universe. Sometimes it means “Zoom Meetings only” and sometimes it means “Zoom sessions – Meetings and Webinars.” Nowhere in the article does it mention that the feature doesn’t work in webinars. Nor does the restriction show up in the section on “Limitations.” I had to search the documentation library for “Meeting and webinar comparison,” which included a table of features. Then I had to look down the Webinar column to look for features that have an N/A listed. By scrolling through the long list, I could find that Webinars do not support reaction emojis, file transfer, and breakout rooms. Now I know, but it’s one of those learning curve issues that could definitely be improved.
Webinar setup and customization leaves room for improvement as well. Take setting up a custom registration page as one example. You can enter custom registration questions that get added to the page. But once they have been added, you can only add new questions at the end of the existing list. There is no ability to change the order of your custom questions or insert a new one in the middle of the list. I had tons of fun when my client asked me to add “Other” as an optional text box after our first custom question. I had to delete everything below it and then type them all in again, one after the other. Not a calamity, but time consuming and irritating.
Email customization is rudimentary at best. You can cancel registration for attendees and you can set an option for canceled people to receive a notification email. But you can’t customize any part of the email they receive. Registration confirmation emails allow you to slip in two text blocks in designated places in Zoom’s otherwise strictly formatted message body. The upper text block throws away preceding or trailing blank lines, and jams the custom text against the surrounding Zoom template text. The lower text block always adds preceding and trailing blank lines.
Follow up emails are another highly restrictive design area. You can schedule a follow up to go out up to 7 days after the event. If you miss that window, you are out of luck… There is no way to send anything. And if you want to change the Reply-To name or email for your follow up emails after the event? Forget it. There is also no way to see a preview of your email while editing, and the system will only email a preview to the designated account host.
Recording and reporting remain areas where Zoom would benefit from a design review in both Meetings and Webinars. It’s almost impossible to predict where webcam video will end up in a recording based on whether it goes to the cloud or a local computer, how many presenters have cameras on, and other factors I still haven’t figured out! If you show a poll in your webinar and share the results in the session, the results display does not end up in the recording. In reports, Webinars lack the feature to consolidate multiple records per participant that Meeting reports have as an option. This means you get a row every time a person leaves and rejoins the webinar (or more commonly, has a brief internet drop that isn’t even noticeable to them during the session).
I’ll close this by mentioning a big problem at the moment. Widespread adoption has placed an overwhelming support workload on the Zoom customer support team. Three years ago I wrote about how impressed I was with my ability to quickly reach a knowledgeable support rep through online chat at almost any time. Throw that comment right out the window. The standard “Pro” paid account now receives low priority responses by email whenever they get around to it.
I asked a tech question during the pandemic and received a reply four months later. And the person who replied did not understand the area of functionality I needed help with. He simply gave me a link to a page listing the difference between a Zoom Webinar and a Zoom Meeting. I finally asked if he could escalate my request to a supervisor or more senior rep. I received no response… He simply stopped sending emails. After another month, I received a reply from someone else in the tech department who understood what I was asking. I mentioned this to colleagues and they told me that they had seen similar delays of 3-4 months before receiving replies to support questions. But one of my contacts said that after upgrading his Zoom account to a higher-priced business license, he received rapid responses to questions. So it looks like they may be prioritizing those accounts. This can be a real problem for webinar hosts… If something is going wrong, we need a way to get help that doesn’t involve waiting for months.
My final analysis? Sure, you can use Zoom Webinars. The in-session performance is good and both guest speakers and attendees are likely to be familiar with the basic operations. As a webinar host, you’re going to have to resign yourself to some things being confusing, some things not offering the flexibility you might have hoped for, and some things taking more time and manual effort than you would like.
Three years ago I closed my review with this sentence: “It's not that it needs more features… It just needs some hardcore use case analysis and refinement of existing functionality to make it more intuitive and flexible for webinar administrators and presenters.”
That seems like a reasonable way to end this review as well.
Webex Quietly Tightens Host Security
A big thank you to loyal reader Karen Bowden who alerted me to a recent change in Webex security for session hosts.
BACKGROUND: When you schedule a Webex Meeting or Webex Event, the system creates a 6-digit “host key.” Having that key allows a participant to take control of the session -- starting it early, changing configuration options, and assigning role authority levels to participants.
In the past, the host key (and meeting password, if used) has always been included in the confirmation email that gets sent to the host who schedules the session in Webex. Then if the named host or session administrator wants to turn over the reins to somebody else (like a third-party moderator or a backup co-worker), they just forward the email and that person has all the info they need to take over and run things.
Cisco must have felt that this was a little too open and convenient. If that email gets forwarded (by design or confusion), any other recipient also has everything they need to grab control of the session.
NEW BEHAVIOR: The confirmation email no longer contains the 6-digit host key (or meeting password) in the body of the message. Now there is a line saying “If you are a host, click here to view host information: https://xxx.webex.com/xxx/…”
The link indeed takes you to the main meeting information page, which includes the host key. But you need to have a host login on that Webex account to get to it. So it keeps the information safe from random people who get the message in error.
This could create a problem for legitimate cases where a host or admin wants another party to take over the role of host. So you may need to update your process flow to look up the host key when scheduling a new web conference and then communicate it to your preferred moderator or session host. Texting it to them might be a slightly more secure methodology than emailing.
It’s worth noting the change, as third-party hosts could easily find themselves ignoring the email until event day, secure in the knowledge that they have the host key in the message, only to panic at the last minute when they realize it’s no longer included and they can’t log in to the meeting information page.
Technorati Tags: Webex
BREAKING NEWS - Zoom Disables Telephone Service For Webinars
Zoom has turned off telephone access for webinar attendees as of Tuesday, September 9.
There is no explanation or background information from the company. They posted a notice on their help site yesterday under “New updates for the Zoom client.” This morning I received a notification email. I’m not sure if that went out to all Zoom account holders or those who have the Webinar option enabled or if it went out through their Service Status system (if you are a Zoom host, you really should register yourself to receive status updates on https://status.zoom.us/ to stay up on issues as they happen).
The notice says that telephone options are disabled for Zoom Webinar attendees, but that hosts and panelists may continue to dial in to speak. The service disruption does not affect “regular” Zoom Meetings, which make up the bulk of their business. The ominous part is a sentence saying that Zoom plans to re-enable telephone access for webinar attendees “in the next few weeks.” Gulp! This isn’t some quick glitch… It must be indicative of a major security flaw built into the design.
This is going to throw a lot of webinar hosts for a loop. I saw one news story from last night where a local town council in Florida was forced to cancel their scheduled meeting because citizens could suddenly not get phone access to listen to the governmental session. Today’s going to be a mess and it doesn’t help that getting through to Zoom technical support can be a very long waiting game. If you know someone who uses Zoom Webinars, you might want to make sure they have seen the news.
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 9
I just received a new status update from Zoom. It says that they are now letting webinar attendees call in via toll (local) phone numbers. The telephone services that are disabled for attendees are "Call Me" (where the system calls out to a phone number you give it) and toll-free dial-in. So that's certainly better!