Thomas Friedman famously announced that "the world is flat" in his 2005 book of that name. He was writing about globalization. In Friedman's view, voice over Internet (VoIP), file sharing, and wireless were the "steroids" that have accelerated the flattening of global commerce. Today I would add video over Internet, which has become more and more prevalent as bandwidth has improved.
The two leaders in the business Web conferencing space are Cisco WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting. A new product, My Web Conferences from a company named MyTrueCloud, promises to offer these leaders some lower-priced competition, though it lacks some of the refinements of the older products -- and the established players are both upgrading their offerings and decreasing their base prices in response to less expensive business services and free consumer offerings.
Some businesses do use consumer products for voice and video over the Internet: Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Google Voice (no video) are three I've used extensively. While these can be useful, they don't quite meet the criteria for business-grade Web conferencing.
These higher-end products are expected to simultaneously deliver desktop shares, video, and audio; to provide high reliability and high quality; to integrate with common desktop software; and to work with mobile devices. They're also expected to handle large conference broadcasts, either in the base service or via a separate product. As we will see, there's a bit of variation among the business-grade products we are considering in all of these areas, as well as some differences in the bundling strategies.
Cisco WebEx Meetings
The doyen of the teleconferencing world, WebEx is now a total solution for preconference planning, conferencing, and postconference follow-up and action. In addition to supporting Windows, Mac, and Linux, WebEx has mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry, and it integrates with most Office and Office-like applications. (Microsoft Office plug-ins are provided by WebEx; Google Apps connectors are produced by a third party.)
One notable differentiator for WebEx is its ability to stream media from its servers to all participants. As a video producer, I often need to show media to remote audiences, and WebEx allows me to do that without serious lag or awkward workarounds. The downside of this capability is that WebEx converts uploaded video to a compressed but proprietary format. Similarly, WebEx allows recording of all conferences, but employs a proprietary format that requires using a media converter or special viewer application.
While the proprietary file formats are annoying, I wouldn't eliminate WebEx from consideration because of them. There are reasonably good technical reasons for those formats, primarily high compression, and the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.
I like the WebEx interface, and I like the meeting space concept. While you can certainly do meeting planning, scheduling, and document exchange via email, putting all of that in one place is a great convenience and helps to organize projects.
In general, I have had good experiences with the quality of WebEx audio and video, with a few small exceptions. Given that I was using a Wi-Fi connection at my end when I had audio dropouts, the problems could have had everything to do with my network and nothing to do with WebEx.
WebEx is a must-evaluate option for companies in the market for Web conferencing. Signing up for free gives you a 14-day trial of WebEx Premium 25, followed by a perpetual license to the free basic service. You do need to install plug-ins to use WebEx, which will require administrator permission, but WebEx even supports Linux.
- High-quality integrated service with unlimited meetings, free mobile apps, file sharing, IM, and simultaneous video and screen sharing
- Server-based streaming of media files
- Free entry-level service for up to 3 people per meeting (1 host license) with standard-definition (SD) video (paid service allows HD video) and VoIP audio (paid service integrates phone and VoIP)
- Excellent support of mobile devices
- Geared toward centralizing everything that has to do with a meeting in one Web application, from preparation through follow-up
- Good integration with Outlook
- Windows, Mac, and Linux compatibility
- Good online training and user guides
- Premium-priced except for stripped-down free meeting service
- Proprietary formats for media sharing and meeting recordings
- Initial download requires administrator privileges
- Integrations are separate downloads
- Training Center, Event Center, and Support Center are separate products from WebEx Meetings
Pricing: Free to $89 per host per month, varying with number of people per meeting, features, support, and storage. Enterprise licenses (more than 9 hosts or more than 100 people per meeting) are quoted individually. Per-minute and per-port licenses are also available by contacting sales.
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