By Michael Caton  |  Posted 2004-01-12 Print this article Print

WebEx Communications Inc.s latest update to its Meeting Center hosted Web conferencing service makes a number of user-focused improvements that ultimately improve the usability of the service. Available since November, these improvements include tighter integration with Microsoft Corp.s Outlook and Office, multipoint videoconferencing, and a number of upgrades to the way Web conferences are set up and managed. eWEEK Labs tested the Meeting Center service, which has a subscription rate of $100 per user per month for a single user or $375 per user per month for five users.

eWEEK Labs tests revealed a better presenter experience, thanks in large part to the service updates. We also found improvements in attendees presentation experience, but without good upfront planning and communication between presenter and attendees, finding the right meeting based on e-mail communications can still be befuddling.

By integrating meeting scheduling directly with Outlook and other Office applications, WebEx gives users a way to more readily share documents and brings the product closer to IBMs Lotus Sametime 3.1, which tightly couples Web conferencing with instant messaging. The Outlook integration feature worked best in testing and does a good job of integrating scheduling directly with the Outlook client.

Although we found it easy to start a shared presentation using the one-step integration features from within Office applications, this feature will require user training. The instant meeting capability works by giving each user a dedicated meeting space, so this option might not be the best choice for infrequent users, who are likely to need more support for such simple problems as forgotten passwords.

Users step through a wizard to initially set up and make changes to this meeting space. A summary page for editing settings of an established meeting space would be a nice addition.

The scheduling wizard within the one-step Office integration essentially matches the Meeting Center scheduling wizard, but a few graphic elements are different. Companies that want to integrate teleconferencing will like the way the wizards simplify scheduling the dial-in details of a Web conference. One of the most welcome additions to the product is its ability to allow attendees to join a conference before it starts, saving the time of connecting everyone at zero hour. In addition, presenters now have the option of having slides autoplay before a meeting starts.

Within a Meeting Center presentation, a couple of new features can help companies improve the richness of presentations. These include the ability to take notes and create a transcript that can then be mailed to attendees at the end of the conference.

Meeting Center now supports full-duplex VOIP (voice-over-IP) and multipoint videoconferencing. The full-duplex VOIP is more compelling because of the potential cost savings on teleconferencing.

WebExs three basic price options offer flexibility. But, again, companies need to mull over usage plans because overage charges (charges levied for too many users) can make the service expensive. Overage pricing is $20 per hour, a painful price considering that month-long usage can cost only $75. Companies can buy on a pay-per-use basis, at 40 cents per minute.

Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at michael_caton@ziffdavis.com


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