Meet me in cyberspace

Spotlight on 3 Web collaboration tools

Not many cyber prophets saw it coming. PCs and the Internet have transformed not only how we work but also where we work. Increasingly, we meet in cyberspace instead of in conference rooms, a trend that is likely to continue because of improving technology and rising travel costs.

Federal Computer Week is part of the Web collaboration world. This article was written in San Francisco, edited in Seattle then sent to the magazine's main office in Falls Church, Va., for another round of editing and page design. The communications necessary to make it all happen took place via phone calls, e-mail and Internet-based, real-time collaboration tools.

FCW's last comparison of Web collaboration tools appeared in June 2004. At that time, we tested the three market-leading solutions: IBM's Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, Microsoft Office Live Meeting and WebEx's Meeting Center. Each company, as noted in the following pages, has enhanced its product. In this review, however, we put the spotlight on three additional solutions that also warrant the attention of agencies and departments considering taking meetings into cyberspace.

— Patrick Marshall

Selecting a Web collaboration solution is more like selecting the city you want to live in than choosing the word processor you want to use. That's because when you select an online collaboration tool, you're choosing an environment to work in, not just an application to use. And you need to consider many factors before choosing a product.

The obvious considerations are whether you need voice and video support for meetings. But you should also consider whether you need to share desktop PCs, whether you need to support instant messaging and how you want to handle document exchanges and edits. Another consideration is whether your online meetings feature presentations by one person or collaboration among several groups.

Not surprisingly, all those factors mean that companies have flooded the market with different solutions. Indeed, more than 200 products offer various tools for online collaboration.

The three products we tested for this article — in addition to the three products we examined in the June 2004 comparison — are particularly well-suited for a variety of purposes often encountered at agencies and departments.

One of the slickest offerings is Macromedia Breeze. The product offers an elegant interface, works across platforms and is great for presentations and training sessions that use video and voice over IP (VOIP) without demanding too many resources. Breeze works well as a one-to-many presentation tool or as a many-to-many collaboration product.

As an alternative to Breeze, WiredRed's confusingly named WiredRed Web- conferencing solution has few requirements for servers and clients. The solution is built around the e/pop utility, which can remotely run applications across Internet protocols. The product's video and VOIP support is strong, and the solution provides a good collaborative work space. We were also impressed with WiredRed's security options.

Like WiredRed, GroupSystems offers a product that replicates the company's name. GroupSystems (GS) offers a different approach to online collaboration. Rather than centering on providing communications channels, GS' main focus is on procedures that help ensure successful meetings. The product employs a variety of techniques and procedures to facilitate democratic meetings that have as few digressions and interruptions as possible. GS works well in asynchronous and synchronous modes and with participants who are in one room or spread out worldwide.

The bottom line: All of these products are winners. The critical job for agency officials planning to implement a Web collaboration solution is to thoroughly analyze the organization's needs to determine the best possible match.

Macromedia Breeze: A slick offering

Macromedia Breeze consists of several components — Meeting, Events, Presenter and Training — which reside on the Breeze Communications Server. Depending on your needs, you limit access to those components solely via the Web — with services hosted by Macromedia — or deploy them behind a firewall in your environment.

Breeze has many robust capabilities. For example, it has a flexible and newly improved interface, newly integrated telephone audio conferencing with integrated meeting controls and enhanced VOIP, dashboard reporting, smooth video, and directory services integration that support Microsoft Active Directory and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol.

You can use Breeze in various situations, but it is best-suited for presentations, meetings and training. During testing we found that Breeze's video and VOIP capabilities work well in a collaborative environment and for one-to-many presentations. For voice and video sharing and collaboration, the presenter must give meeting members at least "Enhanced Participant" rights. We didn't notice that detail during our initial testing. Macromedia should clarify that in Breeze's documentation.

One of the product's major attractions, Breeze doesn't require a client application other than a Flash component on a Web browser when administrators deploy it to users. And for agencies and departments that require secure communication, Breeze uses end-to-end Secure Sockets Layer encryption. But this solution doesn't provide as tight a security level as the WiredRed solution does.

Once we downloaded the Lightning addition for Flash, we were in the full Breeze Web-based client and could share files and upload content. The Web-based Breeze administrative work space is known as a pod, and users can customize each pod.

The ability to share a whiteboard and computer screens within the pod is seamless and easy. The work space's layout was initially confusing, but we soon got used to it. We found the streaming desktop video and VOIP performance to be generally good, although we did encounter occasional stuttering.

We were particularly impressed with Breeze's integrated telephone audio conferencing, which allowed VOIP and other phone users to attend the same meeting. We were also impressed with Breeze's ability to convert applications, including audio, for Flash presentations. Users can include prerecorded Flash videos, animations and simulations in live presentations. We had a problem presenting a Flash applet within a presentation during one of our testing sessions.

Persistence is an important concept in Breeze. A database stores all content from work spaces, so participants who leave a meeting can return and catch up on the information they missed. This feature is especially important for maintaining a team work space. Like the WiredRed and GS solutions, Breeze offers a chat application for participants that facilitates open discussions and private conversations, which users can save as part of the work space.

Although PowerPoint is the quintessential tool for presentations, Macromedia Flash is becoming a strong contender. And Breeze flaunts Flash's capabilities with several tools, such as FlashPaper, which converts any printable document into a FlashPaper Shockwave Flash file that conference participants can share.

The Breeze Meeting manager allowed us to easily initiate a meeting. The product also has a plug-in that allowed us to plan and start meetings through Microsoft Outlook. We did encounter occasional difficulties with audio, however. During one of the presentations, we lost audio and had a difficult time fixing the problem.

Macromedia could strengthen Breeze in a few ways. For starters, there's no support for Session Initiation Protocol devices for videoconferencing. We also found Breeze's reporting tools to be rudimentary. Finally, administrators should bear in mind that Breeze's flexible work space environment, which includes movable application windows, can be somewhat confusing to new users.

WiredRed: Working behind the firewall

Two features distinguish the WiredRed collaboration server from its competition: First, it has extremely small server software requirements. Second, it almost exclusively focuses on deployment inside an organization's firewall.

We set up the WiredRed e/pop Web Conferencing server in less than 10 minutes on a Microsoft Windows 2003 server. The e/pop code, which is less than 13M, doesn't require anything more than a Windows 2000 or later server. It doesn't need a separate database or Web server. The server's only other prerequisite is an open Internet Port 80.

The client installation only requires an ActiveX component to run the Web browser-based software. The company recommends ActiveX, but it's not required. If the ActiveX installation is not possible, the software will prompt participants to install a full fat client.

We did, however, run into one showstopper during the setup of our first conference. During the client initiation of the conferencing software, our Itronix GoBook III laptop PC went into a blue screen meltdown. Apparently, the conferencing software was incompatible with our Global Media camera. We fixed the problem by installing a USB Logitech QuickCam. WiredRed assured us that this problem would be fixed by press time.

The e/pop server and client combination are extremely lightweight. To set up conferences outside a company's intranet, administrators only need to move the e/pop to an organization's secure network and open Port 80 with a static IP address. That configuration will facilitate video, VOIP, desktop and application sharing during conferences.

WiredRed supports three types of conference attendees. First, the host is responsible for all aspects of the conference, including content and user privileges. Second, presenters can share documents and their desktops with other conference attendees. Third, participants can view only the presentation.

As in Macromedia Breeze, a host can easily promote a participant to become a presenter. But all three attendee types can have video and VOIP inside a conference, a trick that Breeze did not achieve. This environment creates a user-friendly videoconference with collaborative document facilities. WiredRed users can record conferences in a variety of formats.

Unlike Breeze, WiredRed allows users to share Word and Excel files without needing to convert to a Flash format. They also can view PowerPoint documents.

WiredRed includes five default layouts, optimized for different presentation types and styles. Although WiredRed layouts are harder to manipulate than Breeze's pods, they work well. Hosts can also control the screen layout of participants by using the Apply My Layout function, which pushes the host's layout to all attendees.

WiredRed also has a plethora of security offerings, including SSL3 and options for RC2, RC4, IDEA, Data Encryption Standard (DES), 3DES, Advanced Encryption Standard, RSA encryption algorithms and certificate support.

Overall, we found WiredRed's e/pop straightforward, elegant and easy to use. WiredRed is more effective as a collaborative tool with multipoint video and VOIP than other products that are focused on one-to-many presentations.

GroupSystems: A democratic approach

Unlike the other products in this comparison, GS is "for getting participants through the meeting vs. to the meeting," a company spokesman said.

Whereas the majority of real-time Web collaboration products focus on one person presenting, leading or teaching within an online conference, GS seeks to promote a more democratic process.

GS comes in two flavors: the GS Workgroup Edition is a local-area network-based solution, while GS II is a hosted product. As with Breeze and WiredRed, GS doesn't require a dedicated client. But instead of using ActiveX or Flash, GS uses a Web browser and Sun Microsystems' Java plug-in as a client. We found that using Java instead of ActiveX or Flash created a slightly longer lag time during conferences.

The user interface is uncomplicated and uncluttered. After entering the GS main portal and choosing a meeting to attend, we saw a row and column layout that reminded us of a spreadsheet. This interface encourages meeting participants to create new ideas. There are buttons for adding, editing, promoting and demoting ideas and concepts. The product's chat interface is easy to use. When an idea requires a vote, the meeting's leader sets ballot items and criteria, and participants can abstain, cast or save their ballots. Vote results are instantaneous.

Meeting leaders use the management interface, called Team Central, for managing the entire meeting process. Inviting participants, setting rights and roles, or moving participants to a specific step in the meeting process is straightforward. Team Central also displays the location of every leader and participant in the meeting process.

We also liked GS' self-documenting capability. The solution provides a document trail and transcript of a meeting's events and decisions, which allows participants to review a meeting's events. GS also supports document output in a variety of formats, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and HTML.

Garza is a freelance author and network security consultant in the Silicon Valley area of California.

Macromedia Breeze

Macromedia
(800) 470-7211
www.macromedia.com

Usability: ****

Performance: *****

Manageability: ****

Security: ****

Price: *****

Price: Macromedia Breeze's hosted service starts at 32 cents per minute per user. For $375 per month and up for unlimited usage, Macromedia supports five concurrent hosts with a capacity to host meetings with a total of 500 maximum participants. General Services Administration pricing is available. Nonhosted server software prices start at $10,000.

Pros: As a lightweight, Macromedia Flash-based client, Breeze offers a seamless user experience across Microsoft and Apple Computer Macintosh platforms. The presentation interface is malleable, slick and well-designed. Video and voice over IP looks and sounds good. FlashPaper allows participants to share documents without using the document's original application.

Cons: Some video and audio hiccups occurred during testing. The user interface may initially be confusing to participants.

Platforms: Breeze runs on Windows Server 2000, Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP.

WiredRed e/pop Web Conferencing

WiredRed
(888) 665-3767
www.wiredred.com

Usability: ****

Performance: *****

Manageability: *****

Security: *****

Price: *****

Price: The hosted service starts at a flat rate of $350 per month for all components. Nonhosted server software costs at least $3,000 for up to five concurrent users.

Pros: The WiredRed client has a small footprint using Microsoft ActiveX, and the server can be set up quickly with no additional Web server or database requirements. The product has excellent security features and a simple, fairly intuitive user interface. The software offers video collaboration among meeting participants.

Cons: We encountered some problems with the client viewing an oddly formatted Microsoft Word document.

Platforms: The nonhosted version runs on Windows 2000 and 2003 Server.

GroupSystems Workgroup Edition

GroupSystems
(800) 368-6338
www.groupsystems.com

Usability: ****

Performance: ****

Manageability: ****

Security:****

Price: ****

Price: Prices range from $35 per concurrent user per day for a hosted event to $1,400 per concurrent user for a perpetual license. General Services Administration schedule pricing is also available.

Pros: GroupSystems offers tools that speed the meeting process and facilitate successful meetings.

Cons: The company should add audio and video for meetings. The interface was slow during some parts of testing.

Platforms: The client requires Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox and Sun Microsystems' Java VM. The server requires Microsoft Windows 2000 or a later version.

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