Review: WebEx and GoToMeeting meet their match

Adobe Connect and Zoom lead six mostly stellar Web conferencing services for desktops and mobile devices

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I used GoToMeeting for several years. In general, audio quality was good and has improved. Video quality can vary, but is much better if you use HD. If you haven’t tried it, GoToMeeting offers a free Lite version with video and screen sharing for up to three people, which you can use without even signing up, and a 30-day GoToMeeting test-drive. GoToMeeting lets you record meetings and save them on your own disk, but you’ll have to convert the recordings after the meeting before they will be usable.

citrix gotomeeting

GoToMeeting, shown here on a Mac, has a control stack, shown on the right in this screen, and a viewer, shown on the left. Video displays in the viewer. You can start meetings from your browser or from the app.

Podio Lite is a free five-employee, five-external-user version of the online work platform Podio. Originally called Hoist, Podio signed its first customers in 2009 and was acquired by Citrix in 2012. Podio now uses Citrix’s infrastructure, GoToMeeting for the Web conferencing portion, and ShareFile for file collaboration, while retaining its own Web “apps” for different types of workspaces. Podio is similar to Cisco Spark, but isn’t linked to GoToMeeting.

I like the way Podio gives each project or meeting its own collaborative dashboard and the way it makes the network functionality feel subservient to the real work being done. At the end of the day, however, Podio and WebEx offer most of the same features and benefits, with somewhat different pricing models: Podio prices per employee, and WebEx prices per organizer.

Cisco WebEx

The doyenne 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, Windows 8 Phone, and BlackBerry. It integrates with most Office and Office-like applications, and with most video endpoints.

In the last year, WebEx has not only picked up a cleaner, more streamlined UI but also new plumbing -- meaning HD audio, faster startup, compatibility with third-party endpoints, and a new, persistent “personal room” for your meetings, along with control over the “lobby,” the area for participants waiting to join a locked meeting. In addition, WebEx has ditched its proprietary AV formats and now uses standard formats such as MP4. Corporate administrators can customize the UI; I only saw the stock UI as it comes from WebEx.

cisco webex meeting center

The updated WebEx portal puts all your meeting, event, support, and training capabilities into one Web interface.

I like the new 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 convenience and helps to organize projects. I also like the way WebEx arranges its video windows so that you can see all the participants small while the speaker is big. WebEx also seems to be able to handle more simultaneous video and audio streams than some of the competing products, and the issues I used to have with WebEx audio seem to be gone.

cisco webex admin

Administrators can customize the WebEx configuration for users, as well as manage host accounts and users.

A new, no-download “browser client” is currently in limited beta; in fact, it’s a WebRTC client. The company recommends using Firefox if you want to use WebRTC, which is a message I’ve heard from several vendors. It makes sense for WebEx to wait until its WebRTC client is completely cooked before releasing it for production.

A new persistent, postmeeting group workspace called Cisco Spark is offered to the host after every WebEx meeting; it’s currently free. The host can easily invite the meeting attendees and, later on, anyone else they need to pull in for discussions. A Spark room feels a little like a private Slack channel, only with videoconferencing on demand. Spark is available for Web browsers and for iPhone, iPad, Android, Mac, and Windows.

With something like 2.6 billion meeting minutes a month, 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 (for 25 people), followed by a perpetual license to the free basic service.

Adobe Connect

Adobe Connect is a high-end Web conferencing, Webinar, and learning solution with persistent, customizable rooms arranged from pods, which are little windows with specific functionality -- similar to what are called widgets in other contexts.

A host can arrange pods into layouts, and both save and load layouts at will. A host can also add pods to his room from the Adobe Connect app marketplace, which contains both free and paid pods from Adobe partners.

The multiple layout feature allows the host to have persistent layouts for different audiences and activities. The weekly status meeting can start with the notes and diagrams from the previous meeting visible along with the newly uploaded agenda for the current meeting; a class that ends in the middle of a lecture can pick up at the same slide when it continues.

adobe connect class

This screenshot, provided by Peter Ryce of Adobe, demonstrates a Class layout that includes (clockwise from upper left) an image, discussion notes, a poll, a chat, and a video that has been annotated. At the far right, you can see a list of layouts for various purposes.

Note that the host determines the layout, not the individual participants or the system. That means, for example, that an instructor knows where his video pod is in the layout and can point at other pods from the live video window and be confident that students are seeing the intended destination. The host can also change the layout on the fly -- for example, to focus attendees’ attention on a presentation or some code.

A second display area, the Presenter Only area, is visible to hosts and presenters, but not attendees. Hosts and presenters can use the Presenter Only area (also known as Backstage) to prepare content to be shared with attendees or to view confidential content.

Connect currently uses Flash to power the client side of the meetings on top of desktop browsers. In addition, it uses a plug-in to improve video performance. While these may not be as fashionable as WebRTC and HTML5, Adobe has an installed base that isn’t uniformly ready for HTML5. According to Peter Ryce, senior technical evangelist at Adobe, some large customers have PCs that are still locked down to Windows XP and IE8. In any case, once the Flash component loads, the performance is fine.

People who are trying to join a meeting that is offline or locked wait in a lobby area. The host can admit attendees from the lobby selectively.

In addition to persistent personal rooms, Connect supports Team rooms. That solves at least two problems: It enables a meeting to go on even if the manager is away or out sick, and it allows team members to refer to and work on shared meeting notes and diagrams stored in the Team room at any time.

Meeting and training hosts can create breakout rooms and assign attendees to them. Once everyone is assigned, the host can start the breakout sessions and later stop them. All attendees in breakout sessions have presenter roles.

Connect has registration functionality for webinar events. Essentially, you generate a registration website by filling in a form.

For virtual classrooms, you can upload and store course materials and curricula. The model here is that you can combine synchronous and asynchronous online learning to make full use of a virtual classroom even when you’re not actively teaching.

You can create meeting recordings in the cloud, edit the recordings, and play them back at any time. You can also export meeting recordings in FLV or MP4 format, and control the quality of the exported recording.

According to Adobe, Connect is serving 7 billion minutes of meetings a year. That’s a lot of meeting minutes, but nowhere near the volume of Cisco WebEx.

I think that Adobe Connect is currently a stronger product than WebEx or GoToMeeting, even though it doesn’t have the market share of either one. You can evaluate Connect free for 30 days. It’s worth doing.

Web conferencing from A to Z

I’ve discussed six Web conferencing systems that have a common core of meeting functionality and different additional features. There are use cases that might make you prefer one or another.

For example, WebEx and Zoom both integrate with H.323 and SIP video endpoints; to the best of my knowledge, Adobe Connect integrates with SIP endpoints directly and H.323 endpoints through a third-party bridge. If you have that kind of expensive video endpoint, integration with what the rest of the company uses for Web conferences probably matters to you. If you don’t have that kind of equipment but want to equip a conference room inexpensively, Zoom Rooms might be a good option for you.

Adobe Connect, Cisco Spark, and Citrix Podio all support persistent team rooms. Zoom,, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Drum ShareAnywhere concentrate on the meeting itself. Whether you care depends on what else you use and how you work. For example, you might find that combining Slack with Zoom or gives you enough ongoing collaboration for your purposes.

If you want to use Web conferencing for e-learning, your best stand-alone choice may be Adobe Connect. On the other hand, you can marry Zoom to several learning management systems to create a strong hybrid solution.

For a small startup with no money, most of these products offer a low-end free plan. Not all the “free” plan restrictions are the same, however. Most restrict the number of attendees. Zoom restricts the length of the meeting.

As you can tell from the scores, I like Adobe Connect and Zoom a lot. WebEx, GoToMeeting, and all work well, and I could certainly live with any of them. The only argument I’d make for Drum ShareAnywhere over the others is that Firefox and mobile device users can join a meeting almost instantly with WebRTC. Other than that, it’s my last choice.

This story, "Review: WebEx and GoToMeeting meet their match" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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