Striving to Make a Mark

Cost comes to define a group of systems as different as they are alike.

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.