Nov 01 2007

Meetings in a Snap

Web collaboration and videoconferencing options offer easier ways to meet.

Thanks to increasing adoption and improved product development, today’s crop of Web collaboration tools have pushed a Mount Everest-like learning curve down to the incline of a wheelchair ramp.

Many companies, such as Lafayette Life Insurance Company in Lafayette, Ind., have moved from either in-person or phone-only meetings to a richer online experience without long training sessions, extra staff and loads of documentation.

The team rolled out Citrix’s GoToMeeting product in order to offer sales Webinars. Ten meeting organizers were among the first to test the product. “They all listened to the tutorial, and we were off to the races,” says Leonard Martin, regional support vice president of the 200-employee company. Webinar attendees have had few problems using the toolset, but Martin does maintain one support person for Webinar troubleshooting. “This has nothing to do with Citrix, but with some people just not being very computer-literate. For example, people call and say they can see the screen, but where is the voice?” he says.

The underlying technology can hardly be called new. WebEx, the market leader in the Web conferencing  market, launched in 1996. But market forces are moving the leading edge to the mainstream and, rather than something rarely used, many experts predict Web collaboration tools will fundamentally change the way we work.

“Penetration is quite high in terms of those who have used Web conferencing, but those who use it regularly are much fewer,” says Jeffrey Mann, author of Gartner’s four quadrants report on Web conferencing. “The real uptake lies with regular, ongoing usage.” Mann’s research draws an interesting comparison with the highly adopted technology behind audioconferencing: Of companies that use audioconferencing, just 20 percent of those meetings also use Web conferencing, and of those only 5 percent use video.

Finding the Right Tools

For IT managers, the challenge of selecting the right Web conferencing/collaboration tools for their organization might actually be getting easier. The market is consolidating, and some software providers are lagging behind. With this consolidation, it’s become easier to essentially stick with what you’ve got. In a Microsoft shop, Live Meeting is a natural choice for Web conferencing. Those running Cisco might comfortably license Cisco’s MeetingPlace (expect more options from Cisco given their acquisition of WebEx in March 2007).

Another factor is that, while capabilities undoubtedly will vary, over the years each of the top competitors has developed a suite of features that are common across all providers. These include presentation delivery, desktop sharing, text chat, shared whiteboard and basic security and, in many cases, integrated phone audio or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and videoconferencing. These are table stakes for Web conferencing and, for the most part, Mann says, they all get the job done.

“If 90 percent of the time what you want to do is share a PowerPoint presentation on the Web, they all do that just fine,” Mann says. “Typically, the other features don’t matter too much because they don’t get used."

Simplicity is a selling point, says Daniel Kushner, director of electronic business at Richmond Hill, Ontario-based medical aesthetics manufacturer Syneron. “I like to have a tool that’s good at its job and knows how to do its job extremely well.”

His search for the right tool involved a few simple requirements to service his 250-person company: the ability to share a presentation online, VoIP integration and single sign-on so internal users could use their regular e-mail and password to log into a meeting. After some searching, his firm chose GoToMeeting from Citrix because it met their needs, was easy to use and cost less than key competitors. “It’s just so simple to launch an instant meeting — that’s what we need,” Kushner says. “We were using WebEx before, so right off the bat we’re saving 70 percent.”

Of course, not all companies have simple, mainstream Web collaboration needs. If you have specialized needs, there are still specialist players out there. These are typically smaller firms, often focused on a higher degree of security, rigorous statistical reporting, mobile video or some other unique differentiator you won’t find in the standard Web conferencing toolset. A bit of extra research may uncover a provider with a focus that is aligned with yours.

Other potential considerations include branding and adaptability. For companies with strong branding requirements, white-label versions are a definite bonus. And for those who like to roll up their sleeves and retune a solution, it is important to consider an open system instead of a closed one. IBM has driven innovation in this area, adopting an Eclipse open-source framework that developers can customize or modify.

Consider Your Options

Here is a run-down of some of the best-rated Web conferencing solutions available today:

Adobe Connect Professional (formerly called Macromedia Breeze)
Not surprisingly, Adobe uses Flash to deliver its Web conferencing solution, and it works well. Presentation windows and whiteboards can be easily resized, removing the need for users to scroll or switch windows.

Cisco Unified MeetingPlace
MeetingPlace is a full-featured Web conferencing solution; however, a common complaint is that it is harder to use than most of its competitors. Also, Cisco’s acquisition of WebEx makes the road map for this product unclear.

Citrix GoToMeeting
GoToMeeting is blissfully simple to use, affordable and effective. However, if your company plans to extensively use Web conferencing in a way that may lead to the need for advanced features, GoToMeeting lacks some functionality that others provide.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting
Part of Microsoft’s Office offering, Live Meeting is a strong competitor that works together with Microsoft Office Live Communication Server’s on-premise presence and  instant-messaging (IM) server.

WebEx Meeting Center 
WebEx continues to be the market leader, offering deep functionality with special editions to support different use cases (Webinars, support, sales, etc.). If you opt for WebEx, choose your edition carefully; many commonly used features are only available in specific editions.

IBM Lotus Sametime
One of IBM’s key strengths is tight integration with other IBM products such as Lotus Notes/Domino applications and Sametime IM. If you use these products and are looking for an integrated, real-time collaboration suite, Sametime will fit like no other product. If you don’t run Lotus apps, you may find a better fit with other solutions.


Dan Skeen is director of search engine marketing for Quarry (www.quarry.com), a communications agency in Waterloo, Ontario.