Web conferencing evolves

World and economic conditions combined with technological advancements continue to alter the business-travel landscape.

According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, nearly three-quarters of business air travelers interviewed believe that conducting meetings with colleagues or customers via Webcasting and related tools is somewhat or much more efficient than traveling somewhere to meet face-to-face. Only 37 percent of those surveyed, however, consider use of such technology more effective than in-person meetings as a way to meet business goals.

So if closing deals or fixing a large engagement gone sour requires a personal touch, what's the role of Web conferencing? In many ways, it can help organizations become more successful and reduce costs. For example, it's ideal for project reviews, employee training (especially for regulatory compliance), prospective employee interviews, contract negotiations, and keeping in touch with offshore resources.

To discover how Web collaboration has evolved, I evaluated the latest hosted meeting services from Macromedia, Microsoft, and WebEx Communications. I examined the ease with which meetings could be set up and tested each solution's tools for managing conferences, as well as its collaboration and archive functions, audio and recording features, performance, and integration with enterprise apps.

All three products offer notable improvements over their previous iterations. Each has made it easier for hosts to deliver presentations and for audience members not only to follow what's going on during presentations but also to offer feedback. WebEx Meeting Center 7 provides clear demarcation between meeting content and management tools, thereby allowing everyone to focus on content. Likewise, Macromedia Breeze Meeting Central 5 successfully employs Flash to create a customizable, intuitive UI. Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005 integrates with Office applications and offers a streamlined UI.

All three products provide improved integration with audioconferencing services, and each has jumped on the VOIP audio bandwagon. With VOIP, you won't need to spend money on audioconferencing services for larger events. WebEx Meeting Center and Macromedia Breeze Meeting Central also permit two-way VOIP.

Although these solutions represent the top echelon of Web collaboration, other options exist. Citrix Online's GoToMeeting offers a low-cost alternative for delivering presentations. IT executives should also track the emergence of solutions that integrate team collaboration with online meetings.

Macromedia Breeze Meeting Central 5

Breeze 5 consists of the core delivery platform and selectable modules for live meetings, recorded presentations, and training. It's the latter that I first associate with Breeze because of the product's history of excellent course management, registration, and online delivery. Breeze 5.0 shows key improvements in Internet audio support and audioconference management, provides a more usable Flash UI, and delivers the ability to play prerecorded presentations within a live meeting, all of which make Breeze 5 a strong challenger to WebEx for corporate communications and marketing tasks.

(It's unclear at this point how Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia might affect the service. As of press time, Breeze was being offered as tested.)

Breeze's browser-based meeting manager allowed me to quickly schedule meetings, upload content, create courseware, and arrange large seminars. Alternately, a plug-in allowed me to plan Breeze meetings and start instant meetings from within Outlook. As do other services, Breeze automatically sends meeting invitations and reminders via e-mail.

Although not unique to Breeze, the ability to upload presentation material to a central folder prior to conducting a meeting is easy to appreciate. The negative: Breeze restricts you to a half-dozen file types, including PowerPoint, Flash, JPEG, and MP3; Microsoft Word and Visio are two notable omissions. (The file-sharing function accepts any file type.)

This limitation aside, Breeze is a showcase for Macromedia's Flash technology, which drives the presenter and attendee UI. Presenters access various Pods (palettes), which have been prearranged for sharing, discussion, or collaboration. For example, the sharing arrangement includes Pods for video, attendees, chat, and notes, and they are neatly clustered around the main presentation stage.

In addition to creating a pleasing appearance, Macromedia clearly seeks to enhance usability in Breeze 5. During PowerPoint presentations, a sidebar allowed me to quickly scan through thumbnails of slides and perform full-text search of slide content. Controls for other basic tasks, such as drawing annotations, are now placed where you'd expect them to be -- within the presentation frame.

A more significant change permits asynchronous content such as a recorded Breeze presentation with audio to be played within a live meeting. For hosts who aren't familiar with a niche topic, this allows them to retrieve a multimedia presentation from the library and effortlessly include it in their overall meeting.

Pod management has been streamlined in Version 5. Each Pod includes a clearly marked pop-up menu capable of grouping relevant options. This functionality makes it much easier to change participant rights, including an attendee's role or Pod access.

In keeping with a main industry trend, Breeze 5 boosts audio support. Breeze's VOIP setup wizard optimizes settings, including sensing background noise so that you can hear users only when they speak. I controlled audio-conferencing functions from the unified Breeze audio interface, including calling participants.

Another previously weaker area, Q&A sessions, is now far less disruptive. As presenter, I revealed a Q&A Pod that collected questions from a chat Pod. I then answered these queries as time permitted -- both publicly and privately -- and forwarded a few to another presenter. In the past, presenters had to pay attention to their main content while monitoring real-time chat.

In a similar way, Breeze 5 allowed me to perform "behind-the-scenes" content preparation and layout customization during a meeting, which I then showed to the live audience when all was ready.

The hallmark presentation part of this product, Breeze Presenter, remains strong. I quickly edited audio that accompanied PowerPoint presentations. Moreover, Breeze provides four new question types -- fill-in-the-blank, rating scale, matching, and short answer -- and question branching. Plus, quiz feedback can now be provided using audio and video. These capabilities form the foundation of the training module, and trainers can now use a wizard for creating progressive learning tracks. I built a custom program that blended self-paced courses and live training. It is also easy to assign prerequisites, scoring, and completion requirements and to view reports that show employee participation.

Breeze also maintains its Web Services Framework. For this test, I used the software's XML output to build a personalized course list that appeared in a Microsoft SharePoint portal.

Finally, Breeze Events is a new application for managing large meetings. I created custom online self-registration forms and was able to track responses, authorize participation, and create post-event follow-up e-mails.

With enhanced audio support, improved usability, and integrated asynchronous multimedia playback, Breeze has made good strides in the live-meeting arena. For enterprises already invested in Breeze for training and presentations, it's sensible to use it for Web conferencing and events, too. If you're just starting to investigate these services, Breeze's wide platform support and functionality are advantages, but the higher cost may be a barrier for smaller organizations or departments.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005

Ranging from SharePoint to Live Communications Server, Microsoft's diverse array of collaboration offerings requires users to learn multiple interfaces and face products that sometimes don't connect. As a result, the company is working hard to simplify and integrate communications this year. For example, the forthcoming Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 gives a single interface for traditional telephony, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, Web conferencing, and IM.

Yet Microsoft is also investing heavily in its backbone applications, which in the case of online meetings is Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005. As a longtime user of Live Meeting, I believe the 2005 version represents a vast improvement over the Placeware service Microsoft purchased in 2003. Beyond providing broader Microsoft Office interoperability, it adds VOIP and includes enhanced presenter controls. Overall, Office Live Meeting delivers a rich, integrated experience.

All it takes to schedule a live meeting are participant e-mail addresses and a meeting time. Advanced meeting functions, such as setting participants' viewing rights, are available from one form, thereby saving setup time. Moreover, I was able to initiate a session directly from Outlook; the add-in also allowed me to schedule a meeting while offline -- an element that should prove beneficial to remote workers.

The new Meeting Lobby deserves mention because it enabled me to conduct a preliminary meeting with presenters so that we could complete preparations before allowing the larger group in.

Live Meeting 2005's Console is somewhat intimidating for new users, but Microsoft has done a respectable job rearranging presenter controls in more logical groups. It has also added some much-needed features for managing meetings. For example, a toolbar button enabled me to batch import presentation documents that later appeared in the Resources pane for easy access during the meeting. Live Meeting's drag-and-drop functionality enables any printable file type to be imported, a notable benefit over WebEx and Breeze.

Additionally, I appreciate the new thumbnail navigation that previews any document, which should ensure presenters don't show the wrong material.

Other console areas show audience information, including the Seating Chart and Q&A area, whereas the main application toolbar is reserved for presentation and attendee tasks such as slide controls, annotations, and sharing functions. Those familiar with Microsoft desktop applications should feel comfortable navigating the menus and palettes after making one or two meetings.

Most uploaded documents are converted into the Microsoft Document Viewer format, which permits zooming without quality loss. Moreover, an updated PowerPoint Viewer displays animations and slide transitions.

Application sharing is much improved over Live Meeting 2003. After selecting the program I wanted to present, Office Live Meeting 2005 grayed out the rest of my desktop, removed the console, and added a Live Meeting sidebar, which provides access to some tasks and a quick way back to Live Meeting. This worked very well, but I still prefer the flexibility of WebEx's PowerPanels because they make it easier to access most tasks without having to go back to the main presentation application.

Office Live Meeting 2005 developers did their homework in the attendee area. Version 2005 allowed me to promote an attendee to presenter, change permissions for individual attendees, and invite additional participants quickly.

Audio controls proved solid. As presenter, I could mute, unmute, and disconnect participants from MCI, BT, and InterCall audioconferencing services. As an alternative, I also successfully tested audio via Internet Audio Broadcast; this streamed audio was easily invoked and of good quality. Plus, I didn't have trouble adding conference audio along with my meeting recordings. VOIP, however, is currently only outbound broadcast.

The overall meeting center home page is well done, making it easy to locate and modify meetings, view reports, and play back recordings.

Microsoft has made significant strides with Live Meeting 2005, offering improved Office integration, additional audio capabilities, and a polished meeting experience for presenters and attendees. But there's still no video, large enterprises must still use external hosts (although SSL encryption is now part of the standard service), and the experience is diluted on non-Microsoft platforms -- issues that WebEx and Macromedia Breeze better address.

WebEx Meeting Center 7

WebEx is synonymous with Web conferencing, and the latest release shows why this service continues to provide an exceptional meeting experience. Based on the company's upgraded MediaTone network platform, WebEx Meeting Center 7 is easier to use, offers enterprises more control and security by keeping internal meetings behind a firewall, enhances audio functions with an IP audio backbone, and improves integration with Microsoft desktop applications as well as enterprise systems such as CRM.

WebEx is tailored for general internal meetings, large-scale seminars, sales, training, and support. Yet each event type shares simple setup and a professional experience. For formal meetings, the "Schedule a Meeting" wizard makes all arrangements foolproof -- from specifying user permissions and voice options to sending meeting invitations. To host ad hoc meetings, just fill in a brief form and an Instant Meeting is under way. Furthermore, you can prefill basic information, such as a teleconference number, and then start a One-Click Meeting from an Office application or a desktop shortcut.

With this version, WebEx addresses feedback from users claiming meeting features are too complicated. For first-time hosts, the system initially asks what you want to do, such as presenting documents or sharing applications. This feature helps ensure that you show only appropriate content -- not your whole desktop or personal files -- and provides a more professional meeting appearance.

As before, sharing options are robust. With one click, I granted specific attendees control of my desktop and Web browser. Straightforward options in the sharing window enabled participants and I to annotate areas on the screen. Other basic functions, such as changing the role of participants or assigning privileges on the fly, are easily accomplished from the main toolbar.

Orchestrating more advanced functions had previously been onerous, with WebEx technology often overshadowing meeting content. Not so with Version 7. Using new floating PowerPanels palettes, which are easy to expand, dock, or minimize, I quickly conducted polls, started a videoconference, and chatted with participants.

Because the WebEx private switched network handles the bulk of Internet communications, visitors to my meetings reported no noticeable lags or breakup in video transmission -- either via Webcam or in movies embedded in Web pages. This was particularly important, as several of my meetings involved colleagues in India and Australia.

Audioconferencing received special attention in this release of the MediaTone network. First, during meeting setup, I offered participants a local toll-free dial-in number. WebEx also allows you to use IP conferencing or a corporate conferencing system. Using the Participant PowerPanel, I had no difficulty controlling teleconferences, muting and unmuting participants' microphones, and specifying Internet Phone options.

Meeting Center 7 will especially appeal to larger enterprises. First, an expanded API puts the WebEx application within company systems. For example, the Administrative API allowed me to assign employee privileges to an ethics training program and view meeting reports to confirm compliance. This feature also works with customer-facing support applications and CRM systems, allowing you to capture meeting information in Salesforce.com or a Siebel database.

Second, a new EMX (Extended MediaTone eXchange) premises-based node keeps all communications for internal meetings behind your firewall. Having this "last-mile" networking in-house improves overall performance because you don't have to rely as much on your ISP for Internet connectivity.

This service recorded presentations and archived both notes and changes to documents. It would be advantageous, however, to streamline the process of posting these for later playback; currently this is buried several clicks down in the main interface.

WebEx Meeting Center 7 makes online meetings more engaging. PowerPanels, on-site network extensions, and IP telephony contribute to a very productive experience for presenters and participants. Furthermore, enterprise APIs enable WebEx to integrate smoothly with various in-house systems, reducing duplicate effort and redundant data.

Any of the three offerings tested here will serve enterprises well, but WebEx performed slightly better overall in my tests. Some key factors may sway your decision, however. One factor is platform compatibility. On several occasions Live Meeting attendees with Mac and Linux systems could not get the full meeting experience. Breeze runs on any system with a browser Flash plug-in, taking the crown in this category. WebEx's Java plug-in comes in second. As expected, Live Meeting did the best job presenting Office documents.

One should also consider network performance and security. All hosted services offer SSL security, but WebEx's optional premises node contains internal meetings within your firewall. Breeze goes one better with an installed software option. If you rely solely on the ASP, WebEx's MediaTone network should deliver the most reliable connectivity and smoothest multimedia playback.

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