Striving to Make a Mark

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2002-07-01
 
 
 

Striving to Make a Mark


It was three years ago that eWeek Labs last rounded up a large group of Web-based meeting products for comparative review. In the years since that roundup, the space has seen significant changes, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Although virtual meeting products have become more capable and easier to operate, they still must contend with the vagaries of the public Internet and function within a diverse mix of client operating system platforms and Web browsers. Each of the meeting products we tested during the recent eWeek eValuation with the University of Wisconsin System (see story, Page 33) suffered from intermittent connectivity lapses and client operability issues.

However, these products continue to hold promise for organizations looking to boost collaboration capabilities and trim costly travel budgets.

We based our tests on the core requirements of the UW System, whose business case we used in inviting vendors to participate. UW System IT representatives, as well as IT managers from several organizations that work with the university and/or with eWeeks Corporate Partner program, judged the performance and feature set of nine Web-based meeting and collaboration systems selected for their stated ability to meet the needs of the UW System.

We evaluated Centra Software Inc.s eMeeting 6.0, eRoom Technology Inc.s eRoom Version 6, Genesys Conferencings Genesys Meeting Center, Interwise Inc.s Enterprise Communications Platform, Latitude Communications Inc.s MeetingPlace, PlaceWare Inc.s PlaceWare Conference Center, Raindance Communications Inc.s Web Conferencing Pro, SpartaCom Technologies Inc.s WebDemo and WebEx Communications Inc.s WebEx Meeting Center.

At the end of the three-day testing period, the UW System judges said they were impressed with what they had seen but would need more time and testing to make a decision. Also, in accordance with Wisconsin state laws, they will need to go out for an official bid.

One of their primary concerns was what they regarded as generally confusing pricing schemes for most of the products. It was also a concern for many of the judges from other organizations, including Gary Gunnerson, an eWeek Corporate Partner and IT architect at Gannett Co. Inc. "Overall, pricing seems to be expensive and confusing," said Gunnerson, testing remotely from McLean, Va. "More than once, we had to ask, What do you really mean by that?"

Also generally speaking, the products we tested offered password and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security and will enable users to effectively present slide-based presentations.

The prime differentiators among the products were their usability features. The judges looked for, but did not always find, simple interfaces with tool tips and other cues to help ease the virtual meeting process for presenters and attendees alike.

A common complaint from judges was that the tested products tended to favor Microsoft Corp.s productivity platform triumvirate—Windows, Internet Explorer and Office—to the detriment or total exclusion of Mac OS and Linux-based systems.

Every virtual meeting system we evaluated leveraged Java to some extent, but most required ActiveX or Windows-only plug-ins to access their full functionality.

In addition to the testing that occurred in late May at The Pyle Center, in Madison, Wis., follow-up testing was performed at eWeek Labs.

eMeeting 6


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eMeeting 6.0

Centras eMeeting 6.0 is a fairly full-featured package, with knowledge management-type features that distinguished it from the other products we looked at. The knowledge management features and the fact that eMeeting is one of a family of collaboration modules from Centra was very appealing to the judges in the education arena.

eMeeting 6.0 supports two-way VOIP (voice-over-IP) conferencing. In addition to being much cheaper than audio delivered over standard phone lines, VOIP affords presenters some interesting facilities for managing virtual meetings. In our tests, for example, the person speaking was indicated in the eMeeting interface, and the meeting presenter could enable audio for a selected attendee or allow as many as four attendees to speak simultaneously.

However, VOIP technology carries with it performance and stability limitations (see related story, VOIP Cuts the Cost of Web-Based Meetings). Representatives from Centra—tellingly, perhaps—opted to conduct the audio portion of their eVal demo via a standard conference call. However, eMeetings voice quality was acceptable during subsequent tests.

eMeeting also includes support for video, which generally worked well. As a presenter, we could enable, disable or pause the video stream, or pass these controls off to a Web-cam-equipped attendee. Video quality ranged from very choppy to something approaching smoothness.

As with most virtual meeting products, the presentation facilities of eMeeting revolve around Microsoft PowerPoint. eMeeting presenters can insert PowerPoint slides into their meetings, storing them in an area labeled Agenda. To do this, however, the presenter must have PowerPoint installed on his or her system.

To preserve animations and multimedia in PowerPoint, presentations must be saved in HTML format. However, eMeeting 6.0 does not support animations with PowerPoint 2002, the latest version of the application.

When a presenter wishes to share an attendee application, a request dialog pops up on the attendees display, providing the option to share one or more running applications. eMeeting also includes a Web-tour feature.

eMeeting offers its attendees a variety of options for interacting with one another and with meeting presenters. A raised-hand icon in the eMeeting tool bar enables attendees to enter a queue to speak over the microphone. Presenters can also pass the microphone from person to person in the queue.

eMeeting offers public and private chat functions, as well as buttons for yes, no, laughter and applause. The judges appreciate this level of "virtual emoting."

From the meeting creation page, users can set the time, date and duration of a meeting, as well as send meeting invites and set a password to protect the proceedings. The meeting eWeek Labs received was in the form of a vCal calendar file.

eMeeting supports only Windows but will work with Netscape or Internet Explorer. A 1.4MB plug-in application, called the CentraOne SmartClient, is required to attend and present in eMeeting meetings.

We could record entire eMeeting meetings, including audio, and make them available for streaming in a format proprietary to Centra. We could also download the meetings in Windows Media format.

Monthly pricing for an eMeeting Active Server Pages subscription starts at $80 per seat. Our judges appreciated the fact that Centra does not charge extra for branding.

eRoom 6


eRoom 6

Where most of the products we evaluated were centered on live virtual meetings, eRoom is first and foremost an online collaboration workspace that offers meeting functionality as one of several collaboration tools.

Perhaps as a result, eRooms virtual meeting tools were more rudimentary than those of the other products we evaluated. Using eRoom, we could chat, use a whiteboard collaboratively, shift control among meeting participants and guide participants through PowerPoint slides or other documents.

While engaged in eRoom meetings, presenters could also share their desktops, thereby presenting to a group any materials they chose.

However, eRoom 6.0 offers no facilities for VOIP or video, nor does eRoom host teleconferencing services. Groups holding virtual meetings with eRoom will have to arrange for their own audio services.

Beyond its chat feature, the eRoom meeting tool is relatively short on attendee feedback capabilities.

Our judges agreed that for tasks such as project management, or for meetings in which members are actively working on documents and the like, eRoom is an excellent option.

Once we got the hang of the interface—its chock-full of different collaborative tools—it was not difficult to set up ad hoc and planned meetings or to manage files, access control and user lists.

Upon logging in, we could choose between browser-only and plug-in-based means of accessing eRooms. The plug-in is required for desktop sharing or to introduce items such as PowerPoint slides into a meeting.

eRoom 6.0 supports Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 and up or Netscape Communications Corp.s Navigator 4.7x. It runs on Windows 95 or better, Apple Computer Inc.s Macintosh 9.x or OS X 10.x, Solaris 8, and HP-UX 10.20.

eRoom 6.0 costs $16,995 per server and $249 per user license for self-hosted eRoom servers. The company plans to offer a hosted version later this summer. Companies deploying eRoom will have to factor in the cost of audio separately, as this is not included with the product.

Genesys Meeting Center


Genesys Meeting Center

Like Latitude and Raindance, Genesys offers phone conferencing services, resulting in the tight integration of audio and Meeting Center Web meeting content.

Meeting Center can dial out to meeting attendees, and it allows presenters to mute or activate attendee phone lines at will, to better manage meetings. Attendees could also leave the main meeting to enter virtual breakout rooms.

Meeting Center does not offer support for VOIP, but it does feature multipoint video.

As meeting attendees, Meeting Center enabled us to signal that we had questions or otherwise provide feedback to presenters through emoticons, similar to those we saw in Centras eMeeting. However, the judges determined it was too difficult for a presenter to see whether or which attendees were calling for attention.

When we scheduled meetings, we could set up surveys or quizzes for attendees to complete upon entering or leaving the meeting, making it easy to get feedback.

The Meeting Center service installs an Outlook integration control onto the machine of the meeting organizer. This enables the organizer to invite people to a meeting simply by selecting contacts in Outlook. This can be done directly from the Web page in which meetings are set up.

Meeting Center enables meeting organizers to export an entire presentation, with audio in Window Media Audio format and everything else in HTML.

Meeting Center runs with a Java applet, but to use application sharing, video and Web-tour features, we had to install two additional Windows-only plug-ins, which required administrative privileges.

Unlimited use of Web collaboration services via Meeting Center for up to 15 concurrent participants costs $39.95 per month for Genesys audio customers. As for audio costs, Genesys wouldnt be more specific than "pricing is based on volume and term commitments." Multipoint video costs $30 more per video participant connected to a meeting.

Enterprise Communications Platform


Enterprise Communications Platform

The Interwise Enterprise Communications Platform enables users to conduct five different kinds of virtual meetings or presentations: iMentoring, iMeeting, iClass, iSeminar and iCast. We focused on the iMeeting portion of the product, which is intended for small group meetings and videoconferences.

Enterprise Communications Platform delivers video and audio via VOIP. During eVal tests, Interwise was the only vendor brave enough to rely on VOIP for its presentation. We found the audio quality predictably poorer than that from a conference call, but it was certainly good enough for most meeting needs.

Interwise supports video streams of up to five meeting participants. However, only the stream of the person speaking is active; the others show a still frame.

As with the other products we reviewed, Interwise Enterprise Communications Platform allowed us to present PowerPoint slides and preserve animations and builds.

Public and private chat is available, and there are buttons for signaling yes and no and for asking questions, but the interface did not really stand out from the crowd.

To enter a meeting, users are asked to choose among three options: Java participant, which requires installation of a Java applet; an option for installing an Interwise application; or an option for using a previously installed Interwise application.

As with the other products we looked at, the Java client in Interwise lacked some of the capability of the plug-in (in Interwises case, a large, 938KB plug-in that one of the judges called a "piglet"). For one thing, the Java client could show only one video screen at a time. However, even with their Java-based client, Interwise supports only Windows.

The eVal judges were impressed with the facilities for content storage in the Interwise offering, particularly with its capacity for recording, editing and reusing content from Enterprise Communications Platform meetings.

Enterprise Communications Platform costs $75,000 per year for unlimited use of audio and video for departments of as many as 300 users. Interwise also charges a one-time $25,000 setup fee.

MeetingPlace


MeetingPlace

Latitudes virtual meeting solution, MeetingPlace, is tailored to the teleconferencing services in which Latitude is rooted. As with the offering from Genesys, the result is audio that benefits from the stability of standard telephone lines but that enjoys close integration with the Web portion of a Latitude meeting.

As with the offering from Genesys, the Latitude service could dial out to meeting participants, and meeting attendees could retire to a breakout room to pursue off-topic discussions. Many of the judges cited the breakout rooms as a feature they wouldnt have thought to ask for but also as compelling and a key advantage for the systems that offered it.

We could add PowerPoint presentations to our Latitude meetings, much like with the rest of the products we evaluated: We selected a presentation, which was then converted and uploaded for broadcast to attendees.

However, MeetingPlace did not provide any sort of progress indicator—an annoying omission since it can take some time to upload a large presentation. MeetingPlace does not preserve PowerPoint builds or animations.

MeetingPlace also does not include support for video, nor does it offer any whiteboard or annotation functions. Unlike video, these tools are virtual meeting staples and are conspicuous by their absence.

Meeting presenters can opt to use the central window in the MeetingPlace interface to present slides or to share applications from their desktops. Presenters can switch between the two at a buttons click. Attendees may also switch between those two modes at will. However, this caused confusion at times during our tests, as eVal judges lost track of which module the presenters were presenting in.

Latitude was well-integrated with Outlook. As with some of the other products, MeetingPlace meeting invitations appeared in Outlooks calendar. However, MeetingPlace went further by allowing us to drag these meeting entries to new times and have MeetingPlace reschedule the Web and teleconference portions of the meeting, as well as notify attendees of the new time.

The preferred platform for MeetingPlace is Internet Explorer and Windows, but we were able to view the presenters shared applications, as well as participate in chat sessions, from a Linux system running Mozilla. We could not share our Linux desktop, however, nor could we participate in slide sessions using this setup. MeetingPlace extends a similarly limited measure of support to Macintosh.

The audio portion of MeetingPlace meetings may be recorded and made available as a WAV file.

MeetingPlace costs $150 per concurrent user per month for unlimited voice and Web conferencing for one to nine user licenses; $135 for 10 to 24 user licenses; and $125 for 25 to 100 user licenses. The system may be purchased and run in-house at a cost of $1,800 per user license.

PlaceWare Conference Center


PlaceWare Conference Center

Several judges entered the testing having used PlaceWare, and theyd been pleased with its performance. As one of our judges remarked, "What can you say but that it works?"

However, although some judges said the PlaceWare interface was one of the cleanest we evaluated, they also noted that it lacked the sort of emoticon functions that were so appealing in Centras and Genesys products.

Gannetts Gunnerson added that the product had "begun to show its age" and wondered if there was something that could be done to make the interface easier to use. In collaborative mode, for example, meeting attendees have to direct their questions to PlaceWares chat module or ask them over the phone, rather than with the sorts of emoticons so well-liked by the judges in other products.

We could share either the view of an application—which is what most of the other products did—or share control of an application with another user. This part of the application sharing is handled well. The sharer can cancel sharing at any time by hitting escape. The sharee can either view the shared application through a window in the PlaceWare interface or opt for a full-screen view of the shared application.

PlaceWare offers one-way streaming audio, as well as teleconferencing services, but the integration between the phone and Web portions of PlaceWare meetings was less fully developed than that in the Latitude and Genesys products, for example.

PlaceWare does not offer support for video, but it does offer fairly sophisticated tools for working with presentation slides. Presenters may shuffle through, save and duplicate uploaded slides. A PlaceWare add-in for PowerPoint enables additional features, for example, allowing users to prepare slides in PlaceWares own slide format.

Slides for whiteboarding, Web touring or polls may be inserted among a set of PowerPoint slides. This has the nice result of keeping all elements of the meeting or presentation in an easily navigable order for the presenter.

PlaceWare supports Netscape or IE on Windows. The product also supports the Mac OS platform but only with a subset of the functionality available on Windows.

Standard service is $100 per month per concurrent user for unlimited use. Gold service adds recording functions and recorded presentation hosting and costs $150 per month per concurrent user. Platinum service adds SSL encryption to everything in the session for $200.

Raindance Web Conferencing Pro


Raindance Web Conferencing Pro

The reactions of the eval judges to Raindances Web Conferencing Pro seemed to revolve around the products interface. One judge described it as "rudimentary," to which another countered that "it may be simple, but sometimes simple works."

Speaking of simplicity, we found the facilities in Web Conferencing Pro for uploading presentation slides to be the simplest and most effective of the bunch. This is because the Raindance product enabled us to upload presentations that were in PowerPoint, Corel Presentations or Lotus Freelance format, but, unlike the other products we tested, Web Conferencing Pro did not require us to have one of those applications installed on our system to do so. Rather, conversion of presentation files took place on Raindances servers.

However, PowerPoint presentations uploaded in Web Conferencing Pro did not retain their builds and animations, and several judges complained that the quality of the slides presented in Raindance was poor.

Raindance brings together voice and Web services in its Web Conferencing Pro offering and delivers the same dial-out capabilities as the services from Latitude and Genesys. The Raindance product does not offer the selective muting and breakout room capabilities of those products, however.

Web Conferencing Pro does not offer support for VOIP, nor does it feature video.

We could communicate to presenters and to other attendees through private or public chat, a nice question-and-answer module or through polling. These features are grouped in the Raindance interface.

Raindance supports application sharing by providing presenters with a sizable window through which attendees could view an application or desktop portion chosen by the presenter.

Raindance works best with Windows and IE or Netscape and requires a small (140KB) Java applet for attendees or a slightly larger (170KB) Java applet for presenters. To use the application-sharing feature, we had to install a separate ActiveX control, which means that these functions are not available to Mac OS or Linux users.

Per-minute service for Web Conferencing Pro starts at 39 cents per participant. Flat rates for unlimited monthly usage start at around $100 per seat per month for as many as 10 concurrent seats. Teleconferencing costs an additional 27 cents per minute per user. Additional charges apply for SSL encryption and branding.

WebDemo


WebDemo

WebDemo is a self-hosted, full-featured virtual meeting product. It supports VOIP, although it lacks a facility for muting attendee sound feeds. The product also supports video, PowerPoint presentation capabilities and a full complement of application-sharing capabilities. Although the judges found the WebDemo interface somewhat rough, it was certainly laid out well enough to get the job done.

However, issues surrounding client setup and certain privacy implications of WebDemos desktop-sharing feature were difficult to overlook.

For example, judges were displeased to find that, somewhere among the six separate security messages to which we were required to assent, we gave presenters the ability to display any attendee desktop to the entire group. Because of this characteristic of WebDemo, several judges said theyd be unwilling to accept meeting requests from WebDemo users.

eWeek Labs agrees. When you send a colleague or business contact an invitation to a Web meeting—along with the ActiveX or Java applets that all such meetings entail—its a matter of trust. Directing a business partner to install a piece of software that, without his or her explicit consent, will enable you to broadcast the contents of the persons desktop to a group constitutes, in our opinion, a breach of that trust.

Beyond the privacy issue, requiring users to accept a set of six different security warnings is very confusing, if not arousing suspicion. After clicking "yes" to a series of warnings, some judges wondered whether something had gone wrong, as some of the warnings looked like they were duplicates.

WebDemo supports Windows 95 or later, with IE 5.0 and up. It also supports e-mail meeting notifications and, like some of the other products we evaluated, meeting invitees can be added automatically to ones Outlook calendar.

As a self-hosted-only solution, WebDemo had the simplest pricing scheme of the products we evaluated. Prices ranged from $1,499 for a five-concurrent-user license to $18,999 for a 100-concurrent-user license. Companies also have to add in the cost of a Windows 2000 server to host the WebDemo application.

WebEx Meeting Center


WebEx Meeting Center

WebEx Meeting Center provided for online meetings as well as any of the products we evaluated, but the feature that stood out most for us, the WebEx Document Viewer, was located offline.

Users can save meeting content in a format proprietary to WebEx for later, offline access through the Document Viewer. For example, we converted and uploaded a PowerPoint slide set from a machine with PowerPoint installed and then shared it with a machine without that application installed. After the meeting, we could open, annotate and save that document on our PowerPoint-less system, all while disconnected.

The eVal judges liked the Web tour feature in WebEx, which enables presenters to allow or disallow live links and to annotate atop Web pages being presented.

Support for meeting recording in WebEx is handled on the client side, as WebEx is a peer-to-peer-based product.

WebEx includes support for chat and for hand raising, as well as for polling and whiteboard functions. The whiteboard annotations from each attendee appeared in a different color, which was nice.

WebEx includes some support for VOIP, which we did not test, as well as for video, which we did.

The video quality we experienced in WebEx was about on par with what we experienced in the other video-enabled products we tested.

Companies looking for full-fledged videoconferencing wont find it here alone, though. Rather, the video in WebEx and the other products we tested is better suited to serve as a supplement to Web- and voice-based collaboration features. Sometimes even a rather grainy picture can be worth a thousand words.

WebEx impressed our judges with its application-sharing functionality, but several of them experienced performance and stability problems when the representatives from WebEx displayed a rotating, three-dimensional CAD object.

WebEx runs either with a C++ Windows-only client or through a Java applet. WebEx extends support to Mac OS systems, either through this Java applet or through a 3.5MB Mac OS application.

The standard WebEx subscription is $100 per concurrent user per month for unlimited meetings, and the Pro subscription, which adds full desktop sharing and record and playback, costs $200 per concurrent user per month. Audio costs start at 5 cents per minute per user.

Alternatively, WebEx offers a pay-per-use plan for 45 cents per minute per user, or 50 cents per minute with WebEx teleconferencing.

A Labs analyst since 1999, Jason Brooks was previously research and technology coordinator at a French economic development agency. In addition to productivity applications, Brooks covers client operating systems and the mobile and wireless space. He is at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Additional reporting by Debra Donston

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