Collaborating via Web-Based Communication Tools : Evaluating Web Conferencing Tools

3/14/2012 5:46:02 PM
Email is great for one-one-one communications that aren’t time sensitive. Instant messaging is better for time-sensitive communications, but it’s still essentially a one-on-one medium.

When you need to include more than two people in your communications, or when you want to give a presentation to a group of people who aren’t all in the same location, a different communications tool is needed. This new tool is called a web conference, and it’s a way to conduct live meetings and presentations over the Internet.

In a typical web conference, each participant sits at his own computer in his own location. Each participant’s computer is connected to the conference via the Internet, and each participant sees the presentation on his or her screen, in real time.

A web conference can be one way, as when the presenter delivers some sort of PowerPoint-like presentation, or two way, where each participant can join in and show the contents of their active applications or desktops. Communication between participants can be audio only (via streaming audio, VoIP, or traditional telephony) or include audio and video (typically using webcams).

Most web conferencing services are hosted on the vendor’s servers. You typically have to arrange a conference in advance, and the hosting service will help you set everything up. Depending on the vendor, this can be a costly service, viable only for larger organizations. Make sure you check the price before you commit to using a particular service.

What features can you expect from a web conferencing service? Here are some of the most common:

  • Application sharing, where the presenter and participants can all access and use the same application in real time. This is useful for smaller group meetings, when all participants are collaborating on a project.

  • Desktop sharing, similar to application sharing, but with the presenter’s entire desktop visible and accessible to participants.

  • File and document sharing, with individual files and documents open for all to edit, also useful for group collaboration.

  • PowerPoint presentations, the core component of large presentations; the presenter gives a PowerPoint presentation in real time, complete with slide transitions and animations, using audio conferencing tools to narrate the presentation.

  • Presenter notes, which let the presenter take notes during the course of the conference for future action.

  • Annotation, which lets the presenter mark up the document or presentation being shared or given, typically by drawing or highlighting on the screen.

  • Whiteboard, which is a blank screen on which the presenter or participants can draw or highlight objects.

  • Text-based chat, which lets participants discuss the presentation with each other in real time.

  • Audio conferencing, which adds the spoken words of the presenter to a PowerPoint presentation. With two-way audio, all participants can speak—assuming that they all have microphones, of course.

  • Video conferencing, which puts a picture of the presenter in a corner of the conference webtop, typically generated via webcam. With two-way video, conference participants can also show pictures of themselves onscreen.

  • Polling, which lets the presenter ask questions of the audience.

  • Quizzes, which lets participants answer test questions, typically with results tabulated in real time.

Some web conferencing systems will have all of these features; others will have a subset. Look for services that offer those features essential to your particular needs.

Adobe Acrobat Connect

The Adobe Acrobat Connect (www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect) software and service offers personal online “meeting rooms” for large organizations. For $39/month (and up), you get audio/video conferencing, screen sharing, whiteboard, and chat functionality.

Figure 1 shows a typical web conference using Acrobat connect. The main window is the shared application—that is, the live desktop of the presenter. The presenter appears via webcam in the upper-left window, and individual text chats can take place in the window below.

Figure 1. An Adobe Acrobat Connect web conference.

Convenos Meeting Center

The Convenos Meeting Center (www.convenos.com) is a web-based conferencing service that starts at $30/month. For that price, you get online presentations, file and document sharing, whiteboard, polling (the ability to ask questions of your audience), and integration with Skype for conference audio.

Genesys Meeting Center

The similarly named Genesys Meeting Center (www.genesys.com) offers similar features to that of the Convenos service. Genesys gives you online PowerPoint presentations, file and document sharing, chat, desktop video, whiteboard, and polling and E-Quizzes. Pricing is by request only.


Glance (www.glance.net) is a web-based conferencing service priced from $49.95/month. Its main focus is easy-to-use screen sharing, with no client software necessary to install.

IBM Lotus Sametime

IBM’s web conferencing service is dubbed Lotus Sametime (www.ibm.com/sametime/), and it comes in several different versions: Entry, Standard, Advanced, and Unyte. The web conferencing service comes complete with enterprise instant messaging, multiway chat, VoIP and point-to-point video, and integration with most major desktop applications. Pricing varies by size of company.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting

Microsoft Office Live Meeting (office.microsoft.com/en-us/livemeeting/) is a hosted service available in two versions (Standard and Professional). You get audio/video conferences, a PowerPoint viewer, integration with Microsoft Outlook, application and desktop sharing, and the like. Pricing is on a per-user basis, with volume licensing available.


Microsoft also offers the Office Communications Server, which enables large enterprises to host their own web conferences and instant messaging.

Persony Web Conferencing

Unlike most other services, Persony Web Conferencing (www.persony.com) doesn’t charge a monthly fee. Instead, you pay once for the software (a hefty $995) and don’t have any usage fees. This means, of course, that Persony doesn’t host your web conferences; you need to host conferences on your company’s own servers. You get screen sharing, presentation sharing, whiteboard, picture sharing, VoIP audio, file transfer, and chat messaging.

Pixion PictureTalk

Pixion’s PictureTalk (www.pixion.com) is a hosted conference solution with four different plans. The Per Minute plan charges you only for time used; the Personal plan charges you for a single 10-person virtual meeting room; the Professional Plan is priced by the seat; and the Enterprise plan lets you host the whole shebang on your own servers. All plans feature application and desktop sharing, whiteboard, polling and quizzes, chat and VoIP, audio conferencing, and the like.


Cisco’s WebEx (www.webex.com) is perhaps the most-used web conferencing solution today. Various solutions and pricing plans are available, for organizations large and small. Features include VoIP support, integrated audio and video, application sharing, on-the-fly annotation, meeting recording and playback, and so on.

Figure 2 shows a typical WebEx presentation. In this example, a PowerPoint presentation is being annotated by the presenter, while participants are chatting in a pane on the right. The presenter, in this case, can also take notes during the course of the presentation; these notes appear in their own pane on the lower right.

Figure 2. A WebEx presentation, complete with annotation and real-time text chat.


Yugma (www.yugma.com) offers three different plans, priced from $199.95 to $899.85 per year based on how many people may attend a meeting. Features include desktop sharing, teleconferencing, public and private chat, annotations, and a whiteboard.

Zoho Meeting

Last but not least, Zoho Meeting (meeting.zoho.com) is, for now at least, a free web conferencing service. It includes the expected features, including application/desktop sharing, chat, and Skype integration, as well as remote PC control.

What’s the Best Way to Talk?

There are multiple ways to communicate online because not every type of communication is the same. Nor, for that matter, do all users have the same communications preferences.

For our purposes, let’s compare email with instant messaging. The reality is, you use instant messaging in different ways than you use email.

For example, instant messaging is ideal for very short, very immediate messages. (In fact, most instant messaging systems limit the length of the messages you can send through their systems.) On the other hand, email is better than instant messaging for communicating longer, more complex, and more formal messages.

If you want to compare each method of online communication with its offline equivalent, think of email as the online version of written letters and instant messaging as the online version of paging. You should use each application as appropriate for your own particular communication needs.

And what of web conferencing? This tool is the online equivalent of a group meeting. It’s not a one-to-one communication (although one-on-one communications are still possible via private chat sessions), but rather a one-to-many presentation or many-to-many conversation. Think of web conferencing as a way to facilitate communications among all the members of your group—even if your group is spread out between a dozen or more locations.

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