Web Conference Call

By Debra Donston  |  Posted 2002-07-01

Web Conference Call

What if you held a meeting and nobody came? Its a scenario not without the realm of possibility in an economy where money and time are in increasingly short supply, and its one that makes Web-based meetings and collaboration all the more compelling.

This stressful climate makes Web-based meetings attractive for two important reasons: The ability to meet virtually means that meeting participants dont need to travel to a meeting place, thus saving time and money, and meetings can more easily be held on an ad hoc basis, theoretically enabling a more fluid and responsive working style.

It was for these reasons, among others, that the University of Wisconsin System decided to evaluate Web-based meeting and collaboration systems to overcome a new organizational challenge.

A frequent eWeek Labs co-testing organization, the UW System received in March a directive from the state of Wisconsin Department of Administration that travel was to be severely limited, if not eliminated, at least temporarily.

The UW System—which comprises 13 four-year campuses, 13 two-year campuses and the statewide University of Wisconsin-Extension organization—has two potential business needs for Web-based meeting and collaboration systems, "sometimes in conflict with each other and sometimes in harmony," said Ed Meachen, UW System associate vice president, Office of Learning and Information Technology, in Madison.

The first is the business meeting need. As many as 20 UW System administrators from just as many different locations across Wisconsin meet monthly. These meetings typically last 2 to 3 hours and, until recently, were face to face, "with considerable sharing of documents and fairly substantive discussions," said Meachen.

The UW System needs a Web-based meeting and collaboration platform that will allow these administrators to replicate not only the function but also the form of this monthly meeting—while not becoming a burden on support staff.

"We need to get the work of the UW System done but must travel far less," Meachen said. "Much of our work is done collaboratively and necessitates many levels of communication. We need a vigorous set of collaborative software tools to replicate face-to-face meetings as closely as possible, yet the tools need to be fairly simple to use because we are so thin in support staff."

The UW Systems other business concern is e-learning. The university already makes heavy use of technology to offer any-time, any-place learning, but it is looking for ways to better facilitate instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction.

For this, said Meachen, the UW System needs a flexible set of tools that will allow students and faculty to work interactively to share video, voice, whiteboards and discussion threads.

eWeek Labs used the UW Systems business case, concentrating on the business meeting function, to test nine Web-based meeting, presentation and collaboration tools.

The product set we tested is not intended to represent all the available solutions in these areas. We made our product selection based in part on the UW Systems selection criteria and in part on our experience with the market and analysis of which products would best meet the needs of the UW System.(For eValuation reviews, go to "Striving to Make a Mark.")

We believe this test set will also help eWeek readers gain a sense of the wide-ranging capabilities and performance of the various virtual meeting systems available, and will therefore help IT and business managers formulate a solid set of organization-specific request for proposal criteria and a well-rounded evaluation short list of their own. (For generalized criteria, see "Points to Consider When Drafting Your Virtual Meeting/Collaboration RFP.")


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Real-World Testing

the eval took place at the pyle center, the UW-Extensions distance education and conference center, in Madison.

During the three days, eWeek Labs and evaluators from the UW System and other academic organizations, government, commercial and financial institutions tested the nine systems accessibility, ease of use, functionality, performance and overall ability to facilitate effective virtual meetings. Ten evaluators, including eWeek Labs analysts, were in attendance at The Pyle Center, logged in to the meetings separately while a central system was projected to the conference room.

Other judges logged in to the meetings from as many as 10 locations (including one in Canada). We were therefore able to gauge the virtual meeting systems ease of use, invasiveness, security and performance across a variety of client setups.

However, in the end, it came down to pricing structure—appropriately so, given the reason for evaluating these systems in the first place. Unfortunately, pricing for most of the services we tested was confusing at best and prohibitive at worst.

"As far as the pricing goes, it seems like theyre all trying to make the pricing as complicated as possible so you cant compare them," said Bill Whipple, administrator and database computer support specialist at UW-Extension. Whipple was one of the judges logged in to the virtual meeting demonstrations from The Pyle Center.

Judy Brown also judged the products from The Pyle Center and agreed that a more common formula for pricing out these systems would be helpful in gauging their value.

"I would like to see some sort of a set baseline," said Brown, the UW Systems emerging technology analyst and an eWeek Corporate Partner, in Madison. "Its all about the balance between cost and functionality."

Once a meeting system is brought on board, corporate culture kicks in and often has to be overcome. People used to meeting face to face may need significant time to adjust to reading emoticons rather than facial expressions and body language.

Gannett Co. Inc. IT Architect Gary Gunnerson logged in to the test sessions from Gannett offices in McLean, Va. Gunnerson, an eWeek Corporate Partner, noted during the testing that even the vendor reps acting as presenters missed some of the cues.

"We have little icons and buttons to press, and the first thing that happens is that everyone mutes us so they cant hear us," Gunnerson said. "Then they ignore all the little icons. Presenters really need to pay attention to that. If you want to have a virtual meeting, you have to pay attention to that feedback."

Executive Editor Debra Donston can be reached at debra_donston@ziffdavis.com.

Other Articles in this eValuation:
  • Striving to Make a Mark
  • eVal Scorecard: Virtual Meeting Collaboration
  • VOIP Cuts the Cost of Web-Based Meetings

  • Rocket Fuel