Can you see me now?

Working from homeVideo calls have become a staple of business communication. Most business communications packages, including those by Google and Microsoft, already include some form of video capability.

At Cartwheel, we use video to communicate with each other when working remotely, conducting interviews with candidates, and in some client meetings. Since we use a number of different video applications, we wanted to share our take on which work best.

For businesses that rely on very high-quality video and audio, we recommend stand-alone systems such as BlueJeans. Although they require expert implementation and are costly,  these systems can integrate into existing phone systems, reserve bandwidth on your network, and have advanced features such as recording and broadcasting.

For the rest of us that want decent video conferencing ability, but don’t mind the occasional hiccup in quality, below are the ones we’ve used. Note that all these applications offer both iOS and Android apps for video on the go.

Video for internal communication

  • Slack: We were originally skeptical of Slack’s usefulness, but have grown to love it. Primarily used for team communication, Slack helps eliminate lots of back and forth emails. Slack has both audio and video conferencing, and both are very good. In addition to a simple, effective interface, Slack recently added  screen sharing. However, we do sometimes experience video dropping while on calls with many users. https://slack.com/
  • Google Hangouts: For those using G-Suite for email, Hangouts is the logical choice. Fortunately, it’s also a very solid one. Google has combined its chat and video capability in Hangouts. The video and audio sound quality are strong, however the integration into other Google tools is a little confusing. For instance, clicking on Contacts from Hangouts does not bring up your G-Suite Contacts, but instead takes you to your “Hangouts” contacts. Why another list? https://hangouts.google.com/
  • Skype for Business: For Microsoft Office 365 users, Skype for Business is included in most packages. In typical Microsoft fashion, Skype for Business is a combination of a few different applications and platforms. Lync, the now retired chat application, and the consumer version of Skype were combined onto the Office 365 platform. This can make things a bit confusing to set up, but once you do, you’ll find Skype for Business a solid video experience. https://www.skype.com/en/business/skype-for-business/

Video for external communication

Communicating with people outside your organization, customers or vendors for instance, requires a different type of video application. Features such as easy sign-in, browser-based clients, and quick set-up are important requirements.

  • Zoom: A heavily funded “unicorn”, Zoom has grown by offering simple, high-quality video calls, webinars, and training tools. We’ve had a few calls through Zoom, and found the application easy to install, and the video quality excellent. https://zoom.us/
  • ClickMeeting: This marketing company spin-off focuses on webinars, and includes branding and recording tools. The price is right for events up to 500 people, and the set-up is relatively easy. https://clickmeeting.com/
  • Webex:  One of the earliest entries in the video conferencing and webinar market, Webex has tried to keep up with the competition with a number of different options, including screen-sharing and phone dial-in capability. Still, the application feels stale, the install is a bit messy, and the pricing is not as favorable as some of the newcomers. https://www.webex.com/

Internet Outage: When the Lights Flickered

Last Friday, a seminal internet attack took place, affecting many well known web sites and services, including Amazon, Netflix, Box.com, and many others.

This attack was important for two reasons. First, experts knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop it. Second, this attack used the so-called “Internet of Things” (ioT), which consists of internet connected devices such as online security cameras and appliances.

The attack itself used a well-known strategy involving a coordinated “ping” from many computers and devices. This type of attack is known as a Distributed-Denial-of Service (or DDoS), in which all these pings together cause the target to become too busy to perform its day-to-day duties. In this case, the target was a company called Dyn, which maintains servers that map internet names (e.g. www.amazon.com) to internet addresses that computers can use.

The result was that users around the country, especially on the east coast, got an error message when they tried to access certain web sites. The issue was not the websites themselves, but the fact that the requests couldn’t find their way through the internet without Dyn’s services.

For us, there are two questions that immediately come to mind. First, how can we best prepare our clients for these types of attacks, and second, what can we, as a country, do to protect ourselves best in the future?

We recommend every business big and small should craft a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). A BCP addresses your business’s response to various contingencies, including power outages, storms, fires, etc. The plan includes how and if you will operate in the wake of these types of disasters. A wide-scale internet outage presents challenges similar to a power outage, and contingencies can include how to communicate with clients, and how to ensure access to critical data.

An attack of this magnitude inevitably brings to the surface questions of responsibility. For instance, should the federal government play a bigger role in ensuring that our internet infrastructure is sufficiently resilient and secure? And while no simple solution is forthcoming, we all need to take an active part in thinking about the future of perhaps our most important utility.

The Custom Software Conundrum

Customer Relationship Management System. Interaction And GamificI recently met  a potential client that desperately needs a new CRM (customer relationship management) and calendaring system. They have been using a custom-built system (Filemaker based) hosted on their own server, as well as an integrated calendaring system, also hosted on their own server.

While these systems had been working for years, they have recently started failing.  The business has grown, and the calendaring software can no longer handle the volume of data. The integration between the custom CRM and the calendar is also broken. In a familiar refrain we hear from many clients with heavily customized software, the original developer is “no longer available.” In addition, the company’s remote offices have grown frustrated with the slow connections to the internally hosted systems.

All indications point to a lightly-customized SaaS solution. Indeed, the firm had recently hired a marketing expert that was exploring various online options.

While a majority of the technology industry has moved to SaaS, there is still a large contingent of small and medium-sized businesses that see one-time investment in custom software as a better value. Is it? The answer, of course, depends on the specific business situation. However, there are only a few cases in which we recommend custom software.

A quick SWOT analysis of this decision:

Custom Solution

Strengths 

  • No monthly reoccurring costs
  • Built to exact specifications 

 

Weaknesses

  • Poor remote access
  • Requires expensive maintenance and upgrades
  • High capital costs
  • All integrations must be custom-built
Opportunities

  • Workflow can be perfectly customized

 

Threats

  • Software breaks, developer not available
  • Downtime

 

 

SaaS Solution

Strengths

  • No/few capital costs
  • No maintenance and upgrade costs
  • Scalability
  • Excellent remote access

 

Weaknesses

  • High monthly recurring costs
  • Workflow must be somewhat modified to fit software

 

 

Opportunities

  • Easy integration into multiple systems
  • Excellent mobile options

 

Threats

  • N/A

 

 

 

As you can see, the decision is a simple one in most cases. Cost overruns, delays, frustrations, and unseen efficiency costs are easily forgotten years after a custom software project. Even if SaaS software costs more, the balance is heavily weighed in its favor. The only factor that can tip the scales towards a custom-built solution is workflow. If workflow is very complex or specialized, heavy customization will be required. Even then, using a PaaS (platform as a service) instead of hosting software yourself is justified.

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