Making Web meetings a snap

Web conferencing offers many benefits to large and small agencies: Employees

spend less unproductive time out of the office, managers reduce their organizations'

travel budgets and workers in remote locations can quickly collaborate,

which compresses decision-making cycles.

With Web conferencing, participants speak to one another via a telephone

conference call. They access the visual portion of the conference, which

might include Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint slides, software demonstrations,

collaborative workspaces and even video, by using their Web browsers and

logging on to a World Wide Web site.

Alas, Web-conferencing technology isn't perfect. For starters, the

quality — and, therefore, the effectiveness — of remote seminars is sometimes

questionable. Static slide shows, slow response and difficult setup are

just some of the headaches facing presenters and audience members.

PlaceWare's Conference Center 2000 doesn't suffer from those problems.

Other good solutions are available, including Contigo Software Inc.'s

i2i Internet conferencing system, WebSentric Inc.'s Presentation.net and

SneakerLabs Inc.'s iMeet.com.

But PlaceWare Conference Center 2000 has an edge in several areas. First,

it's very scalable, hosting up to 2,500 attendees (using one server) in

a formal auditorium setting.

Secondly, getting the most from PlaceWare Conference Center 2000 doesn't

require special training or hardware. This Java application is intuitive.

Presenters and attendees simply need an Internet connection and a Web browser.

Ready, Set, Show

Conference Center 2000's usability is apparent from the outset. For

administrators, scheduling a basic conference or seminar takes about a minute.

After signing on to a PlaceWare Conference Center site, you merely click

the Organize a Meeting button, check off a few items on a Web form, and

you're ready to host an open meeting (one where anyone can attend).

Similarly, setting optional meeting properties takes just a few additional

minutes. For example, you can request that users enter their e-mail address

on a registration form, let presenters record their show for later playback

and let meeting access be controlled. This last feature is especially key

in government settings. PlaceWare 2000 can generate a security code number

or create a list of authorized attendees. Because the login code is transmitted

with strong encryption, the product's safeguards should be adequate for

many types of government meetings, such as training seminars.

Informing attendees of a meeting is yet another task PlaceWare Conference

Center 2000 greatly simplifies. The software's Invitation Wizard automatically

inserts a customized message into your e-mail client application, such as

Microsoft Outlook. Because the text already includes the meeting's unique

URL, access code and instructions, all you do is select a distribution list

and send the message to prospective attendees.

After accessing the meeting site, Conference Center 2000 opens the appropriate

Java console (presenter or audience view, depending on your login). Performance

was very good over a local-area network connection. The initial download

of either console required about one minute, while subsequent actions (such

as switching to another slide) happened within seconds. Remote offices with

dial-up lines or slower connections will experience an initial performance

lag; the console will take several minutes to first load over a 56 kilobits/sec

modem, but viewing slides and ensuing functions occur quickly.

The console user interfaces are well designed. Presenters can drag and drop

PowerPoint presentations into the meeting space. Moreover, concise palettes

and clearly labeled function buttons mean you're not distracted when giving

a presentation. For example, I easily selected which slides to show the

audience, switched to a different presentation and used drawing tools to

highlight areas on slides.

As with face-to-face meetings, you need to keep your audience engaged. One

way Conference Center 2000 helps maintain interest is through live polls;

results are immediately tallied and shown as a PowerPoint slide. Another

interactive option, LiveDemo, opens a special frame that captures part of

your PC's screen. Actions, such as cursor movement within another application

or streaming video from a Web site, are shown to the audience in real time.

With a feature called Meeting Places, participants have a comfortable

environment for working together. Here, the presenter can share controls

with the audience. So, for example, team members can use the tool palette

to mark up slides or draw new pages. Previous PlaceWare Conference Center

versions let presenters work with the audience by accepting questions and

enabled audience members to interact through one-on-one chat sessions. That

part essentially is unchanged from past versions.

However, the InstantReplay function has been updated. Using one button,

you can record a copy of a presentation that included conference call audio

synchronized with visuals (including slides added on the fly during the

show), plus questions and answers. This is saved in RealNetworks Inc. or

Microsoft streaming media format — and you can secure the playback with

a personal identification number or by creating an access control list.

What's more, new report formats list conference attendees, when they joined

and how long they participated. This information is easily exported to desktop

databases, such as Microsoft Access.

PlaceWare Conference Center 2000 is a well-rounded Web conferencing solution.

The cost is very reasonable, considering that your licenses can be shared

among users and the price includes first-rate technical support from the

vendor. Because meeting setup and attendance are so simple, people will

tend to use the system more — resulting in faster transfer of important

information and more effective training. In the end, these savings and productivity

gains can pay for a subscription in the first few uses.

— Heck (mike_heck@infoworld.com) is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager

of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.

AT A GLANCE

PlaceWare Conference Center 2000

Score: A

PlaceWare Inc.

(888) 526-6170

www.placeware.com

Service can be obtained directly from PlaceWare at a yearly cost of$400 per unnamed seat.

PlaceWare Conference Center 2000 lets government agencies hold securemeetings via the World Wide Web without building an IT infrastructure. Furthermore,this product's flexible licensing means you won't consume a large part ofyour budget on Web meetings.

BY Mike Heck
May 01, 2000

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