Collaboration tool makers offer wares for free amid Coronavirus

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Vendors make their services free as demand for remote working booms

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19 March 2020 | 0

Major collaboration and video conferencing software vendors are offering products to users for free 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 due to disruption caused by the virus, some software vendors that enable remote work, such as videoconferencing software provider Zoom, have seen their share value climb dramatically.

Although many collaboration and communication providers already offer free – but limited – versions of their software, amid the ongoing crisis many have announced further deals, typically to provide additional paid features at no extra cost.

Google last week said it would start offering advanced Hangouts Meet videoconferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite Education customers at no extra cost. 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. 

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 as well as letting users schedule video calls with co-workers.

“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.

Slack pledged to make the paid version of its chat app freely available to anyone directly supporting Covid-19 response.

CEO Stewart Butterfield stated in a tweet: “If you’re working on #COVID19 research, response, or mitigation and @slackhq can help in any way, e-mail covid@slack.com. Free upgrades to paid plans, setting up a consultation for remote collaboration best practices: we got you. Even socially distant, we’re all in this together.”

Zoom announced this week that its videoconferencing app is available for free to K-12 schools in the US, according to Forbes.

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 license. 

LogMeIn is making its GoToMeeting videoconferencing 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. 

The unified communications vendor announced new features for its free standalone video app, 8×8 Video Meetings, last week. This includes unlimited usage, calendar plug-ins to schedule meetings directly from Google Calendar and Outlook, and real-time closed captions and transcription.

Zoho has made one of its app collections available for free until July. The Remotely suite of cloud apps includes a videoconferencing tool, shared documents and its Cliq team chat tool. While CafeX’s Challo collaboration app is free to use until July.

Free tools spur long-term adoption?

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 are 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 license,” 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 organizations 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.”

IDG News Service

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