Product Review: PlaceWare maximizes Internet conferencing

There's no question that Web conferences save organisations substantial money. Foremost, you eliminate travel costs and reduce unproductive time for your speakers and audience members. However, most products don't allow attendees to interact -- which is an important part of face-to-face meetings. Moreover, presentations are often limited to static slide shows, which further dilutes the effectiveness of your message.

This release of PlaceWare Conference Center 3.0 is an improvement on what was an already strong product, offering solid performance and tremendous ease of use. Version 3.0 overcomes interaction problems and offers more dynamic slide-show capabilities, which gives it an edge vs competing conferencing products, such as Microsoft's NetMeeting, Databeam's Meeting Tools, and RealNetworks' G2. Although these products provide some mix of these capabilities, none offer them all. Even its closest competitor, Contigo Internet Conference Center, has difficulty running through firewalls, whereas this release of PlaceWare's product worked perfectly through a heavily secured firewall.

Version 3.0 of Conference Center operates even more easily and quickly than before. Used with your Web server, the Java-based Conference Center lets presenters and participants enter virtual auditoriums and immediately give or view both live and previously made presentations.

Equally important, it gives presenters more control over the seminar space while introducing extra interactive features. For example, you can display Web sites containing streaming audio and video as part of a conferencing session.

Conferencing 1, 2, 3

To upload Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, I simply accessed the Conference Center and then dragged and dropped several PowerPoint files into a browser window (the previous version required a PowerPoint plug-in to first covert the slides). After this step, I was able immediately to give my presentation.

Similarly, attendees connect to a seminar without encountering the delay of downloading large client software. Version 2.0 required only about 1 minute to initially access a meeting, but Version 3.0 showed the first slide almost instantly.

Interact and collaborate

Both presenters and participants have a better conference experience with Version 3.0 than with previous versions. To clarify a discussion point, which an audience member sent to me using the existing live question-and-answer function, I quickly created text and graphics slides on-the-fly; with previous versions, you needed to prepare these pages beforehand.

In addition, presenters have much more control of a conference's general format. Using the Controls window, I initially disabled chat along with live questions and answers. For first-time attendees, this lets them concentrate exclusively on the slides. But when another speaker took the stage, I quickly turned on interactive features and they immediately appeared in attendees' browsers.

Further, I entered a URL at several points during my live presentation and the Web site was displayed to all participants within a few moments. I also used the new SnapShot tool to capture screen shots from various desktop applications -- and included those images in my presentation in real time.

Conference Center 3.0 doesn't stream multimedia files itself (for example, a live image of the presenter). However, as part of my presentation, I was able to show a Web site containing previously recorded RealNetworks RealVideo files.

In addition, instead of using a telephone conference call for the audio portion of my presentation, I employed a server that streamed live RealAudio; in this case, the audience listened using RealPlayer Plus G2 operating outside of the Conference Center application. Nevertheless, Version 3.0 let me record both the streaming audio and slide sequence during the live seminar. At a later time, visitors entered the auditorium and replayed the conference call synchronized with the visuals.

Intimate discussions

Conference Center 2.0 was primarily designed to host as many as 15 simultaneous large meetings, although audience members can chat with others without disrupting the main presentation.

Version 3.0 focuses more on function than audience size. Each of the 15 main auditoriums still accommodates 200 people. But 15 new Meeting Places have been added that are ideal for holding small ad hoc discussions (among as many as 10 people) and unstructured presentations. Like the main auditoriums, Meeting Places are easy to join. Similarly, presenters can lead one of the workgroups -- or turn control of individual tools over to attendees.

In conclusion, of the conference products available on the market, PlaceWare Conference Center 3.0 does the best job of integrating myriad Web conferencing functions without interfering with your networking infrastructure. IT managers who are looking for a Web-based alternative to face-to-face meetings should definitely consider it.

Mike Heck (mike_heck@infoworld.com) is a contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys, in Blue Bell, Pa.

The bottom line: excellent

Conference Center 3.0

IS managers wanting a Web-based alternative to face-to-face meetings will find this two-way, browser-based presentation solution extremely simple to use.

Pros: Works through firewalls without any rule changes; captures and displays application screens; plays back finished conference calls with synchronised visuals; accommodates breakout sessions for small meetings.

Cons: None significant.

PlaceWare Inc., Mountain View, California; (888) 526-6170 (toll-free); www.placeware.com.

Price: From $US2200 (10 concurrent users).

Platforms: Server: Windows NT Server 4.0; Sun SparcStation with Solaris 2.x. Client: Windows platforms; SparcStation; HP-UX 10.10; Netscape Navigator 3.01 and later; Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.01 and later.

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