Today’s testimony before the US House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee should have been a slam dunk for one tech company: Cisco, whose WebEx video platform was used to host the hearing. As four of the most powerful chief executives on the planet were grilled by lawmakers, Cisco faced no scrutiny, and its software got hours of free advertising during a much-watched news event.
Unfortunately for Cisco, all did not go as planned.
Trouble started at 12pm ET, when the hearing’s initial start time was pushed back by an hour. While this wasn’t attributed to WebEx, it evoked the all-too-familiar feeling of a remote meeting delayed by technical difficulties.
After things kicked off, during ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner’s opening statement, someone accidentally unmuted their microphone, and filled the House chamber with disembodied rustling, typing, and a few unintelligible words. Not long after that, Jeff Bezos appeared to unmute himself during Mark Zuckerberg’s opening statement, causing his startled face to momentarily flash across the screen. Later in the proceedings, Bezos would accidentally start answering a question while muted.
But the most disruptive glitch came about an hour and a half into the hearing, when subcommittee chairman David Cicilline abruptly announced a 10-minute recess so congressional staff could “fix a technical feed with one of our witnesses.” Cut to a graphic that (perhaps much to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s chagrin) looked like it was executed in Microsoft Paint.
Throughout the proceedings, representatives and witnesses demonstrated all the worst features of a videoconference: For the first few minutes, speakers were in grid view—alongside a dozen camera-off participants. Speakers also repeatedly talked over each other, and WebEx flattened their voices into one quarrelous and unintelligible sound.
While several members of Congress made use of tools unique to videoconferencing—sharing their screens, showing charts up close, and playing audio–old habits were hard to break. During his questioning of Google’s Sundar Pichai, Colorado Rep. Ken Buck stuck to the tried-and-true Congressional photo-sharing app: an image printed on a large poster board and placed on an easel. Unfortunately, the easel was too tall for the shot.
Ironically for a hearing on competitive tech practices, videoconferencing has seen plenty of competition lately. Google Meets, Facebook Messenger Rooms, Zoom, BlueJeans, and international competitors like JioMeet, are all vying for a share of the video chat market, which has gotten much bigger since the pandemic sent millions of people into the world of remote work.