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 any special training or hardware. This Java application is intuitive.
Presenters and attendees simply need an Internet connection as well as a
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 log-in 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 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 log-in). Performance
was very good via 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 in 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 that Conference Center 2000 helps maintain interest 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. 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, those savings and productivity
gains can pay for a subscription in the first few uses.
Heck is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager
of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.