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Acano: Visual Collaboration with CONTEXT

September 22, 2013 | David S. Maldow, Esq.

Acano

It has been a long time since a new entry into the visual collaboration industry generated this much buzz, excitement, and curiosity. People just can't stop talking about Acano. We first got a look at the solution at InfoComm 2013, where they got our Best in Show award for Innovative Use of Cloud VC Technology (based on the demo we saw after fighting our way through the crowd of curious industry insiders packing their booth). While a lot of the interest in the solution is due to the caliber of its exec team, and their Tandberg roots, the solution itself is unique, and worth taking a closer look.

The Acano solution is centered on the concept of a "co-space". A co-space is Acano's take on the virtual meeting room, with a few twists. Most virtual meeting rooms are rather ethereal. They exist "in the cloud" and they cease to exist once the participants leave the room. While some vendors offer persistent rooms, they still feel transitory, as there is no evidence of their existence when the meeting is not in session. A "Click Here to Join" link in an email may allow you to rejoin the meeting at a later time, but again, unless someone is in the meeting, it is virtually nonexistent.

Acano

Co-spaces, on the other hand, are more than a transitory meeting session on the internet. They have a permanent existence within the Acano client. There is a persistent chat associated with the co-space, whether or not a meeting is in session. In other words, if you keep minutes in the chat during the meeting, those minutes will always be available in the co-space at a later time, even if there is no meeting taking place. The chat can also be used in between meetings, perhaps to prepare an agenda for the next session, or just to add project related links or information.

This philosophical difference between co-spaces and traditional virtual meeting rooms leads to them being used very differently. A traditional virtual meeting room is generally assigned to a person, or group, who then uses that meeting room as a communications tool. A co-space is more properly associated with a project, than with a person or group. A separate co-space can be created for every active project with in a working group, and the persons assigned to each project can then be invited to the correct co-spaces. With proper use of the persistent chat, each project group not only has a place to meet, but a headquarters for offline project management.

The Acano solution can be seen as the result of three recent trends in the visual collaboration industry. The first trend is towards user friendly solutions. This is not an administrative tool, it is clearly designed to be operated by the users themselves. The advanced settings, protocols, and technology are all hidden from the user, who simply clicks on a co-space to access it. The second trend is towards device interoperability. I have tested the client on my desktop, iPhone, iPad, and the WebRTC browser connection. All share a consistent UI, making it easy to switch from using one device to another. It is also easy from within a co-space to dial out to a traditional meeting room endpoint or telephone.

Acano

While Acano is certainly does a good job with a friendly UI and device interop, it doesn't make them unique, as other vendors are making headway with these trending areas. What makes Acano particularly interesting (and cool in my opinion) is the third trend. This is the trend of going beyond the basic meeting room concept with visual collaboration technology. Our VC technology has gotten so advanced, and is now so (comparatively) flexible and easy to work with, that vendors like Acano have the opportunity to be creative.

A few years ago, if VC vendor could claim that their product provided consistent and reliable audio and video, that was pretty much the ultimate goal. Now, quality audio and video are table stakes in the visual collaboration game. Since "it actually works now" is no longer a compelling sales pitch, vendors have been forced to get creative and find new differentiators for their products and services. Acano has done this by creating some context for the technology. Rather expecting users to figure what videoconferencing should be used for, Acano is offering an intuitive "workspace" concept that users can understand.

At its core, an Acano "co-space" isn't that much different from a traditional virtual meeting room. They haven't added any mindblowing new technology to the picture. All they are really doing is giving users a bit of guidance and direction in how to use their visual collaboration capabilities to more effectively communicate. In fact, Acano makes no bones about the fact that the magic of their solution is really in the packaging.

Acano's strategy is to replicate the success of the iPhone, Salesforce, and LinkedIn. All of those offerings took existing technologies, and packaged them in a way to make them affordable, easy to use, positioned well, with the right sales model. Acano is trying to do the same thing with internet communication. It really isn't about the underlying technology, as much as the packaging.

Acano

While the workflow and UI is certainly compelling, we should note that this is an extremely new offering, and still feels like a beta. I had the client crash a few times (although it does load back up quickly and get right back into the co-space). The debug menu (shown above) is prominently featured in the UI, which makes us think it is still in heavy use. In fact, during our brief testing period we came across an issue involving our AMD processers, which prevented us from using the client initially. To be fair, the Acano team did release a patch resolving our issue immediately (within a day), but there was nothing particularly unusual about our systems which should have required special attention. There is a famous story about Max Levchin, the founder of PayPal, staying up for 5 days straight working on the code for PayPal because it wasn't quite working yet when they sold the idea to investors. Acano gives me the same feeling, to some extent. My gut says there is a team of very smart, and very tired Acano coders working some long hours. I don't want to make things sound overly dire, Acano is a perfectly functional, working product, but out of respect to my readers I must state that it still has a very heavy beta feel to it.

It also feels more like a step in the right direction, than a final destination. While I applaud Acano for finally adding some CONTEXT to visual collaboration technology, it feels like there is more to be done here. I am not suggesting that Acano add capabilities just for the sake of adding capabilities. I like a clean, limited UI, without a lot of confusing options. I also don't think this needs to be a complete team workspace solution, with document hosting and everything else associated with those more robust project management offerings. But Acano still feels a little barebones, a little like something is missing. For example, the ability to edit and manage the chat would be nice. If this is persistent chat, used for project management, we should be able to clean it up. If I post a message with a broken link, it shouldn't stay up there to confuse the rest of the team for the duration of the project. Also, a few more project related elements would be nice. For example, a basic project status flag (active, inactive, critical) would help users sort their co-spaces. Additionally each co-space could have a designated area for project critical elements (deadlines, key links, etc.). Again, it doesn't need to be a full bore project management engine, but a little more control and flexibility would make the co-spaces a lot more powerful. Combine some of the lighter features of Trello with Acano, and I think we could make collaboration magic.

Acano is already making sales and picking up customers. As the platform continues to mature, we expect the company to see decent growth in the next few years. Acano could have simply offered another vanilla meeting room solution, and probably done well with the collective experience and insider knowledge of their rock star executive team. The fact that they actually have something unique and compelling with this platform means we would all be wise to keep a close on them as they continue to move in the space.

About the Author
David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate publisher at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.







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