SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - Web conferencing is the next important technology you should evaluate for your enterprise. By moving meetings that include employees from all over the world to the Web, your company can cut not only travel expenses, but also unproductive travel time.
The quality, and therefore effectiveness, of Web meetings has often been questionable. Static slide shows, slow response, and difficult setup are just some of the headaches facing presenters and audience members. Further, installable solutions mean additional hardware and support costs.
PlaceWare Inc. Conference Center 2000, a new hosted service, removes these last barriers while improving the experience for Web meeting-goers. Other good solutions are available, including Contigo Software i2i Internet conferencing system, WebSentric AG Presentation.net, and SneakerLabs iMeet.com. But based on my extensive use of a beta version of Conference Center 2000, it looks as though the competition will have a hard time matching its excellent scalability and very high usability standards.
My only complaint with the last version was that its many features could confound infrequent users (see our review on Version 3.0, "PlaceWare maximizes Internet conferencing," at www.infoworld.com/printlinks). For example, it was sometimes difficult to log in and navigate through all of the meeting rooms and auditoriums. That's no longer a problem. In addition, administration functions are now more straightforward.
To start a Conference Center 2000 meeting, audience members and presenters enter through one URL, eliminating confusion and getting you directly to your meeting. Setting up a meeting takes less than 60 seconds. I clicked the Schedule New Meeting button, checked off a few items on a Web form, and was ready to host an open meeting.
Similarly, setting optional conference properties takes just a few minutes. For example, I requested that users enter their e-mail addresses on a registration form, allowed presenters to archive their shows, and controlled meeting access either via a security code number or a list of authorized attendees.
Informing attendees of a meeting is another task that's greatly simplified by Conference Center 2000. After I selected the Invite Attendees function, Conference Center automatically inserted a customized e-mail message into my Microsoft Outlook client. Because the text already included the unique meeting name, access code, and instructions, all I needed to do was select my distribution list and send the message.
Participating in a Web conference takes no effort. Once you access the meeting site, Conference Center opens the appropriate Java console (presenter or audience view, depending on your log-in). In my tests, performance was very good when accessing the Conference Center beta site over a corporate LAN. The initial download of the presenter or audience console took about one minute.
But subsequent actions, such as switching to a different slide show, revealing a slide to the audience, or pointing to an area on a slide, occurred almost instantly.
The presenter console's user interface is a bit more refined in this version.
As before, you can drag and drop Microsoft PowerPoint presentations into your meeting space. But I found the rearranged pallets and function buttons saved me time while I gave my presentation, because I could more easily select which slides to show.
Also, I found it much easier to insert a live polling slide into a presentation and perform app demonstrations. The Live Demo function opened a particular frame to capture part of my PC's screen; the audience could see actions such as cursor movement or multimedia from a live Web site in real time.
In the smaller meeting places, participants have a comfortable environment for working together, as well. For example, team members can use a convenient tool palette to mark up slides or draw on a whiteboard.
Previous versions of Conference Center let presenters work with the audience by accepting questions and enabled audience members to interact through one-on-one chat sessions. These functions remain mostly unchanged, except for the updated Instant Replay function. By pressing a single button, I recorded a copy of a presentation that included audio synchronized with visuals, as well as live input from participants.
I also appreciated the new reporting capability that listed attendees, when they joined, and how long they participated. This information is easily exported to databases.
Conference Center 2000 hits all the essential points for a Web conferencing solution. The cost is very reasonable, considering that first-level technical support is included and that licenses are not tied to specific users. Because meeting setup and attendance is so simple, you'll have more productive meetings and presentations, regardless of size.
Mike Heck (email@example.com) is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA
PlaceWare Conference Center 2000, beta
Business Case: This Web-based service allows enterprise-scale companies to hold secure Web meetings without investing company IT resources.
Technology Case: You can host 2,500 audience members in each conference or fewer members in private meeting spaces. Shows can contain slides, Web pages, interactive polls, live software demonstrations, and streaming media.
+ Easy scheduling and invitations
+ Multiple security options
+ Live interaction
+ Accepts most types of visuals
+ Detailed usage reports
- None significant
Cost: Annual hosted service, $400 per seatPlatform(s): Windows 95/98/2000, Windows NT, Solaris 2; a current Web browserShipping: March 31, 2000PlaceWare Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; (888) 526-6170; www.placeware.com.