Coronavirus prompts collaboration tool makers to offer wares for free

Coronavirus prompts collaboration tool makers to offer wares for free

Several big-name vendors, including Microsoft, Google, Cisco and LogMeIn, are making some of their chat and video-conferencing services free as demand for remote working booms

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Major collaboration and video conferencing software vendors are now offering products to users at no extra cost in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Concerns about the Covid-19 virus have led to a boom in remote working, as organisations encourage employees to stay home and a growing number of conferences are cancelled.

While many companies have seen their stock prices take a battering because of the disruption caused by the virus, software vendors that enable remote work such as video conference software provider Zoom have seen stock prices climb dramatically. 

Last week, Microsoft, Google and Cisco began to offer some services for free to those who need remote collaboration capabilities.

Google said it would start offering advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite Education customers at no extra cost this week. The features, usually available to enterprise tier subscribers, include access to larger meetings of up to 250 participants, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers in a single domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive.

The move is set to remain in place until July 1.

Microsoft is making the premium version of its Teams collaboration application available for free as part of a six-month trial offer for Office365 E1 payment plan.

A free version of Teams is already available with limited features compared to the paid tier. Microsoft said that it will lift restrictions on user limits on the free Teams version beginning March 10, as well as letting users schedule video calls with coworkers.

“At Microsoft, our top concern is the well-being of our employees and supporting our customers in dealing with business impact during this challenging time,” the company said in a statement. “For many individuals and organisations, Microsoft Teams video-conferencing, chat and collaboration are playing an important role in helping people continue to work and collaborate.

“By making Teams available to all for free for six months, we hope that we can support public health and safety by making remote work even easier,” the company said.

Cisco has expanded the list of features available as part of its free Webex offer in all countries where it is available. Additional features include support for up to 100 participants and unlimited usage. Customers that are not already using the service can sign up to a free 90-day licence.

And LogMeIn is making its GoToMeeting product available for free for three months to “critical front-line service providers,” the company said in a statement. That includes healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities and non-profit organisations.

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said the decision to offer short-term discounts  could spur longer term adoption of remote working tools.  But it could also raise questions about whether they’re taking advantage of the outbreak.

"While all these companies will argue that they are simply doing their bit to support people who are, either by choice or necessity, now having to work remotely, there will inevitably be suspicion and accusations that they are capitalising on this difficult climate to promote their own solutions,” she said.

“By providing additional features or free trials for a limited time, they can meet the spike in demand without actually cashing in [in] monetary terms, but of course they will be hoping that it means those users will see the benefit and opportunities that come from using their tools, and continue using them longer term – likely through a paid licence,” she said.

The rise in demand shows the shifting business perceptions toward remote working in general, she added.

“The sustained nature of the outbreak will mean that organisations that might otherwise have been quite averse to the prospect of allowing employees to work remotely will now be forced to experience it,” Ashenden said.

“The question is whether this leads to changes in mindset in the longer term. For employees themselves, many will now be learning how to be productive when working from home, and how to collaborate with colleagues effectively outside of the office. I think we’ll see the issue of poor connectivity cropping up as well as more people spend more time on conference calls.”

Microsoft and Google have also announced that they have pulled out of two major events as efforts mount to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Having already cancelled its MVP Summit in the Seattle area, Microsoft said it will no longer be attending the HIMSS20 healthcare technology conference in Orlando, Fla., which typically hosts more than 40,000 attendees.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from participating at HIMSS 2020. We look forward to sharing more on our latest healthcare innovations at a future date,” said a Microsoft spokesperson.

Google cancelled next month’s Cloud Next conference in San Francisco, California, but will continue to host the event online. Various other high profile tech conferences have been called off in recent weeks, including Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and Facebook’s F8 developer conference. 

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