AttendAnywhere brings high-end video conferencing to the corporate masses

Disclaimer: I have undertaken some consulting work for AttendAnywhere in the past. This post only covers what is publicly available and I haven't received a penny for writing this. About the only thing I may get from the AttendAnywhere guys is a beer (or a slap on the head) the next time I am in Melbourne. Anyhow, on with the show...

Rising fuel prices, hectic schedules and incessant climate change warnings are making us more aware of the hidden costs of 'same room' meetings. Whilst telephone conferences alleviate the need for travel, a lack of visual feedback leaves such exchanges feeling one dimensional and disjointed. Up till now video conference choices have either been too costly or rudimentary to be viable business solutions. In an effort to change this, Melbourne-based AttendAnywhere have partnered with Vidyo to offer an affordable, on-demand, high-quality video conferencing solution.

That's me (on the right) taking part in a video conference. (click to enlarge)
Yes that is a .Net book in the background - I was young, naive and she promised to be gentle...

But what is wrong with Skype?

At this point many people start to wonder why you would want to spend money on video conferencing when Skype video is free. The AttendAnywhere/Vidyo combination provides a range of advantages over plain old Skype:

  • Multi-party conferences - Skype is limited to one on one video.
  • Screen sharing of applications - Is possible in Skype but requires third-party software.
  • Very low-latency audio - Ever tried having a conversation on Skype only to talk over people? Vidyo has pretty much solved this problem.
  • High quality, robust calls - Skype video works, but is not that consistent as far as video or audio quality goes. Vidyo dynamically degrades the video and audio quality to make sure the conversation can still keep going.
  • Meeting management - Skype lets you make calls but it does not help when it comes to setting them up.
  • Ad-hoc meetings - With Skype you really need to be 'friends' with someone to start a meeting. In a business environment where you could be meeting with hundreds of relative strangers this is unwieldy.
  • Support - Skype is a subsidiary of eBay focused on mainstream audio services. AttendAnywhere is dedicated to business to business video conferencing.

How affordable is affordable?

The reality is high quality, business-critical video conferencing cannot be achieved for free. No matter how the solution is deployed there will be significant infrastructure and support costs. However, consider this back of the envelope comparison of a traditional setup vs AttendAnywhere's on-demand offering.

In this example we will use a hypothetical three office company that conducts 10 hours of video conference meetings per week, or approximately 31,200 meeting minutes per year (all values in Australian dollars):

The traditional video conferencing model

Description of expense
Total cost per year
Video conferencing units (Cisco/Polycom)
- $6,000.00 per office
Dedicated ISDN lines
- $350 per month per office
Third-party technician to install and support equipment
- 10hrs per month @ $140hr
Total cost
Approximate 'per minute' cost:


The on-demand (Software as a Service) video conferencing model

Description of expense
Total cost per year
AttendAnywhere subscription
- $0.36 per minute x 43,000 AA minutes*
Decent PCs with good quality web cameras and microphones
- $2,500 per office
Extra Internet bandwidth on top of standard connection
- $50 extra per month per office
In-house technician to install and support computers
- 4hrs per month @$70hr
Total cost
Approximate 'per minute' cost:

* 43,000 AttendAnywhere minutes = 25,000 minutes one to one conversation and 6,000 minutes of three way conversation (different rates apply)

The above calculations assume three dedicated PCs would be purchased rather than reusing existing hardware. It also assumes that an existing network infrastructure and support system is in place (i.e. an internal "I.T. guy"). Even taking into account these hardware costs, an on-demand video conferencing solution still comes out significantly cheaper per minute than a traditional, dedicated setup.

How does AttendAnywhere do it?

AttendAnywhere itself does not produce video conferencing software, it simply resells access to high-end Vidyo developed systems. Vidyo are relative newcomers to the video conferencing market, but they have designed some pretty impressive technology based on the h.264/SVC standard. Their software delivers high quality video conferencing over low quality Internet connections. If you want to know more checkout a demonstration video on their website. AttendAnywhere has taken this raw technology, reconfigured it for a shared environment and built a management layer on top to enable people to easily setup and join meetings.

Okay but what is it like to use?

Even if something is cheaper than the competition and technically superior it still has to work well and look good to be accepted. Joel Spolksky's recent RailsConf 08 keynote hammered this point home (if you have not heard this talk check it out).

"Great software has three components... making people happy... obsessing over aesthetics... and observing the culture code."

Joel Spolsky, RailsConf 2008
8:25 - 8:35

As far as AttendAnywhere goes the overall experience is good, but it is still a little raw and in some parts muddled. This can be attributed to two things: the company is undergoing a tricky migration of business models, and the on-demand Vidyo service is very new.

Prior to offering on-demand video conferencing AttendAnywhere's primary business was distributed events management (primarily in the health-care sector). The problem is this side of the business is quite distinct (and harder to understand) than their more generic offering. Unfortunately rather than offering two completely distinct services the two are intertwined and compete for attention on the same page. Whilst a minority of existing users may like this, new Vidyo-centric customers will probably find this "other stuff" more than a little baffling.

But all is forgiven, the video conferencing really does work!

The Vidyo component is very new (i.e. just out of beta) but generally excellent. Currently the client is Windows only, but it is built in Java, so in theory it could be ported to OSX and Linux. Installation is a snap because when you select to join an AttendAnywhere meeting the software downloads and installs automatically so long as you have Java installed (thank you Java Web Start).

Video quality does depend on the hardware and bandwidth you have at your disposal. AttendAnywhere has a good technical rundown of what you need to see good results. The examples you see here are taken from my two year old 20" iMac running Windows. On occasion I have also used a MacBook Air to achieve a similar outcome. In both cases I have used Apple's built in iSight cameras without any issues.

Technical details aside the Vidyo client is very straight forward to use. It has a single row of buttons along the top for controlling screen layouts, screen sharing, volume and not much else. In an Apple-like manner it seems to "just work", and for the most part this is the case.

The value of a good, noise cancelling microphone

One thing that needs mentioning is the value of a decent microphone. Many webcams have microphones built-in, but when it comes to anything serious you really need to splash out on a decent, noise canceling unit. The ClearOne CHAT 50 is very good for a group of people, but when by myself I use a Logitech microphone and a pair of iPod earbuds (to stop audio feedback).

The organisation and network-centric paradigm

The AttendAnywhere web application forms the glue which changes Vidyo from a simple Skype competitor to a core business application. AttendAnywhere accounts are free and when you sign up you receive complimentary Vidyo minutes.

Within the system you can create your company and various types of networks. The concept of a network in AttendAnywhere is very similar to a Facebook group, except instead of sharing gossip you can easily share meeting invitations or begin 'ad-hoc' meetings. The privacy settings of networks can be tuned to cover a range of needs, from organisational departments through to special interest groups.

Preparing and joining a meeting

Setting up meetings is AttendAnywhere's bread and butter. Unlike your average calendar application the focus of meeting invitations is identifying how a geographically distributed group of people will come together. A big part of this involves managing the limited video conferencing resource that most organisations have available. Whilst it is common for consumer hardware to ship with webcams the overwhelming majority of corporate systems do not. Over time this will change, but in the short to medium term, business video conferencing will still involve groups of people huddling around dedicated computers and projectors.

When invitations are sent out the recipients must identify not only if they can attend but where they will be coming from and how many extra people can join them. This grows the video conference resource pool and makes it easier for those who cannot attend from their own computer to find someone nearby who is.

Another important factor that AttendAnywhere takes into account is how the cost of the meeting will be covered. A single organisation can cover the entire cost of the meeting, or costs can be divvied up on a participant basis. For freeloading consultants like myself this is great because it means I do not need to pay (or seek reimbursement) to attend other people's meetings. I can also see this being very handy in architectural projects where one party (i.e. the client or lead-contractor) agrees to cover all project meeting costs.

The downer: interface overload

A business application's interface should strive to stay out of the way. This is because the goal of the person using it is to get in and get out - they are not interested in pausing to take in the view. Unfortunately AttendAnywhere's current web interface has not had the time to go through these optimisations and is still very much a '1.0' experience.

The main issue is that there is too much 'interface candyfloss', words for the sake of words and options repeated in various places for no obvious benefit. For example having an option that reads "Create a network" with a subtext of "Create a new network" does not add anything except another centimeter to the overall page length. In contrast if you take a look at the Projjex interface the majority of the screen is made available for things you are interested in. They have also used tool-tips to introduce newcomers to functionality without cluttering up the seasoned user's experience.

Did I hear someone say makeover?

How much of this candyfloss can be trimmed from the web experience you ask? Well after a few weeks of using the service I have some ideas. Take for example the following (typical) AttendAnywhere screen:

I took this screenshot into Photoshop and took a knife to all the things I did not use or had no interest in. The result was this tight little number:

Okay it may not look radically different, but by stripping out the candyfloss and deleting the obtrusive menus the important things are a lot clearer (to me at least). Not only is it easier on the eye but you get the added benefit of having everything fit within a single browser window.


The AttendAnywhere/Vidyo combination is really promising. Whilst there is a long road ahead and it has plenty of maturing to do, the service provides an excellent balance between price and performance. Companies like AttendAnywhere stand to profit from the hesitancy of mainstream brands such as Skype and Apple to enter the world of serious video conferencing. If you live in the Australasian region and are interested in checking out AttendAnywhere/Vidyo go ahead and sign up. I can't guarantee flawless results, but if your experience is anything like mine you will be pleasantly surprised.