Hands on: Live Meeting 2005 offers improvements

In its early years, the Internet was basically a combination mail system and bulletin board. With the development of Web sites, it became a data repository. Next, with the addition of transaction processing, it became a shopping center.

Now, the Internet is on the verge of yet another transformation. It is rapidly developing into a virtual work space in which groups can hold meetings, deliver presentations and collaborate on documents. Yes, virtual conference software and whiteboard programs have been around for several years. But the tools' sophistication and infrastructure are reaching levels that make these solutions useable instead of merely interesting.

The major players seem to know it, too. Adobe/Macromedia recently acquired Breeze. Microsoft, for its part, acquired Placeware, which it has renamed Live Meeting.

We'll take a close look at both products in our Sept. 12 issue. But a couple weeks ago, I got an early look at Live Meeting's newest version, Live Meeting 2005.

As with Live Meeting 2003, the previous version, Live Meeting 2005 offers a slick interface. Information about meeting participants is displayed along the left-hand side of the display and a handy seating chart stretches across the bottom. The rest of the display is devoted to the meeting space, which can be used to display an application on the host computer, a whiteboard or slideshows.

As with other Web conferencing tools, Live Meeting 2005 offers an instant messaging function for communicating with individual or multiple participants. The program also offers real-time polls of participants and mood indicators.

This version of Live Meeting offers several significant improvements. First, a new Document Viewer allows presenters to drag and drop documents directly into a meeting so that other participants can access them. Documents remain in the meeting room until the expiration time which the presenter sets.

Live Meeting 2005 also has improved voice capabilities for meetings. If your agency or department uses BT Conferencing, Intercall or MCI for conference calls, you can control those systems directly from within Live Meeting. And this version allows presenters to stream audio to participants using voice over IP.

Not surprisingly, one thing that distinguishes Live Meeting is its degree of integration with Microsoft Office. Meetings can now be scheduled from within Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, Windows Messenger and MSN Messenger. Microsoft also has provided integration with IBM Lotus Notes, allowing Notes users to schedule meetings and track confirmations.

Live Meeting 2005 isn't a be-all, end-all solution, particularly for government users. For one thing, it is a hosted service, which means that agencies and departments can't retain complete control over the system. Second, the only support for voice over IP is from the presenter to participants. Voice over IP cannot yet be used for the conference call itself. Finally, Web conferencing will never be an experience comparable to a live meeting until smooth videoconferencing capabilities are supported.

As noted above, we'll take a detailed look at the top Web conferencing tools in September.

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