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Despite the attention paid to unified communications and videoconferencing systems, a lot of remote business meetings still take place on audio conference calls. And what a hellish experience it remains. Participants are often jumping on and off the calls, losing their connections, and invariably someone asks "Who just joined?" or "Bob, are you there?" Occasionally a participant will put themselves on hold, and suddenly their hold-line music is serenading the group.
The insufferable experience has even been parodied by businessman Dave Grady in a You Tube video that's logged over 800,000 views.
LoopUp aims to solve conference call madness by combining audio conferencing with Web conferencing, using the best--and removing the worst--features of both, said CEO Michael Hughes. The company, recently relaunched as LoopUp, started eight years ago as an audioconference business called Ring2, which an analyst said was popular in the United Kingdom.
LoopUp appears as a plug-in to the Microsoft Outlook calendar application, enabling an organizer to schedule a meeting (similarly to other Web conferencing apps) by selecting the participants and sending an e-mail notice to them. At the appointed time, participants join the call by clicking the "Join Now" button in the email and entering their phone number, then the LoopUp system calls them.
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So far, the experience is similar to other Web conferencing systems such as Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, or Microsoft Live Meeting. But Hughes said LoopUp avoids some of the hassles of those services--and those of traditional audioconference systems.
First, LoopUp simplifies Web conferencing by providing just the basics. While the system allows the display of a slide deck or a document, it doesn't deliver live video of the participants, which is unnecessary for most everyday conferences.
"We're trying to reduce the feature set that's out there in the market," Hughes said.
At the same time, the user interface eliminates some of the major hassles of audio conference calls. Each time a participant joins the meeting, a pop-up window identifies him or her for the rest of the group. The system also displays a roster of all the participants so everyone sees who's there. When someone leaves the call, his or her name disappears from the roster.
The LoopUp system also eliminates other common distractions. For example if a caller is in an airport with a noisy PA system or in a house with a barking dog, they are put into listen-only mode. Conversely, if two people on the call need to briefly talk privately, the line is temporarily muted for all other participants.
While there are numerous conference call services available, most haven't bothered trying to address the hassles, said Hyoun Park, a research analyst at Aberdeen Group. "It's been seen as a commoditized and mature space, so companies have stopped innovating and trying to make it better," Park said.
Competitors have added features to their platforms such as instant messaging and video, but that only makes them more complex, he said. LoopUp, on the other hand, has purposely avoided that.
But LoopUp faces major competitors in WebEx, GoToMeeting, and FuzeBox, whose customers have adapted to Web conferencing and placing calls through a computer, said Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at the research firm Current Analysis.
"We'll see over time how well [LoopUp is] able to compete more broadly as the product matures. It's still pretty immature feature-wise compared with established solutions like WebEx and GoToMeeting," Shimmin said.
A survey conducted for LoopUp by Zogby International found that 22% of an average conference call is eaten up by logistics, including waiting for a key participant to join, asking who just joined, or suffering a bad cellphone connection. The survey also revealed that 80% of respondents said they are less likely to be engaged in the meeting because they are so frustrated by the hassles, he said.
LoopUp charges are based on the number of participants and the number of minutes per call. If an organizer wants to display images, that's counted as an extra participant.
While LoopUp tries to address the hassles of audio conferencing with some of the attributes of Web conferencing--like seeing the participants' names onscreen--it eliminates a key feature of Web conferencing by not offering live video, which Hughes said is unnecessary for everyday meetings.
"The guys we're going after, many of them have told us repeatedly that the last thing they want at 7 a.m. ... is to be on video with their coffee and their terrible hair," he said.
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