I dislike the general pattern of conference call services, principally because they are based on a model that predates computers and the web. They operate on the lowest-common-denominator of 1995: a dumb landline or cell phone. As a result, I am constantly confronted with the following paleolithic use case:
- A call is set up by some means.
- Some time before the call (and often at the last minute) I get an email — or a calendar invitation via email — which has a phone number to call and a code for the conference call, usually a series of digits.
- I then have to type in the phone number, wait for the recorded message from the conference service telling me that I have reached a conference service (which I know, after all), and telling me to type in the code and then hit ‘#’.
- The service then reads the code back to me, and asks me to confirm that it’s the correct code by typing ‘1’.
You know the drill. It’s the approach taken by dozen of free and for fee conference calling services.
First of all, I hate the numbers. I don’t want to type numbers. Even though I often call out to these calls on Google Voice, I still have to type them.
Luckily there is a growing wave of solutions that are based on a different premise: that we are generally using computers — even when we have ‘calls’ with others — and we don’t want to use codes and remember phone numbers.
The newest to cross my radar screen is Speek.com, a company with the mission to ‘make conference calls suck less’, and just received $1.2M in seed funding from undisclosed early stage investment firms. The team includes John Bracken, of Evite.com and AOL, and Danny Boice, of Jaxara and the College Board.
Most importantly, Speek typifies what I think of as the web approach to conference calls:
- A URL instead of a number and code — Yes, there is a number and code that you can share if you are inviting grandmother or someone in Yemen, but in general callers join by typing in ‘speek.com/stoweboyd’ in the browser.
- If callers are browsing on a mobile device, the number and code are automatically used to make a cell call to the conference.
- If callers are on a PC, they can opt to join the call via VOIP, like a Skype call, although there is no video involved in Speek calls. (I have to disable video in Skype frequently, anyway.)
This is the modern baseline approach, but here Speek adds some special sauce. Files can be uploaded to the call, and the callers who are connected on PCs can see the files during the call. Any files uploaded are forwarded by email to the attendees who register their email addresses with Speek. And if you connect Speek to Dropbox, files are synced to the dropbox/apps/speek folder.
During the call, those using the browser UI see something like this:
In call captured above, I had called in from my phone, and connected by two different browsers on my Mac. Calling from the phone can be done a number of ways: actually calling the Speek number associated with my account (which I haven’t even tried yet), typing in the URL in the mobile browser, which makes that call automatically, or sending an SMS message to the Speek SMS dialer (415 815 6000) with the name of the account as a message, which leads to a call back. The last is the best approach, I think, once you have the Speek SMS dialer number in your contacts.
The avatar shadowed in green was the one speaking — Speek can tell based on audio sensing. The tool also allows callers to send text messages which are shown as talk balloons, and profile information is accessible by mousing over the avatar, too.
At the end of the call, Speek sends out a notification to all callers with information about the call, and all shared files.
Each user has access to a dashboard that tracks all calls, and provide other capabilities, such as inviting people to a new call based on the attendee list of a previous one.
Speek also steers clear of some of the problem areas of other modern conference call and meeting organizer tools. For example, it avoids the messy area of trying to establish a good time for a call (as Doodle does), or integration with calendars at all, really. I plan to take a look at that area in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that no one has figured out a truly general approach to that complex mess.
As I said, Speek seems to climb above the messiness of numbers and codes, and allows us a more logical and web-oriented approach to coordinating calls. I might stop giving out my phone number altogether.
I haven’t made much a case for the use of this in the business setting, but the friction involved in arranging and conduct of conference calls is sizable. And the mechanism to distribute all the shared documents — either via Dropbox or email — solves a general use case, as well.