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Wed 23 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Come Together

If you have teams or individual colleagues dotted around the region, what solutions are available to help you communicate and collaborate without leaving your desk? Windows outlines your options…

|~|SMB-webconf---m.jpg|~|WebEx allows you to chat with meeting participants either privately or publicly
|~|In a recent study by RoperASW and US video-conferencing expert Tandberg, business professionals overwhelmingly reported that face-to-face communication - when compared to audio and online/web-based communication such as e-mail or chat - is easier to understand, more personal, enables quick decisions, reduces confusion and misunderstanding, makes people more accountable, and helps with detailed explanations.

But what if your firm has branches or offices scattered across the country or region? Getting together in one physical space with colleagues and partners is costly and time consuming, and so - in many cases - just not an option.

This is where web conferencing can come in. Compared to corporate level, professional video-conferencing solutions, which can involve an outlay of thousands of dollars - web conferencing can be cost-effective and quick to set-up and run, as well as being a truly valuable communication and collaboration tool.

Primary players

The two biggest players in the hosted web conferencing market-place are Microsoft, with its 'Live Meeting' tool, and the 'WebEx' family of solutions.

These tools allow colleagues and net-connected business partners to meet online and have meetings, share ideas, collaborate on documents, give and receive presentations, and more. From a hardware requirement standpoint, the key draw for small firms is that nothing more is required from each participant than a PC with a fast internet connection (and, if video is your goal, a decent webcam too).

Windows spoke to Microsoft's EMEA Live Meeting boss, the director of its real-time collaboration group, Torben Anderson. “I think you can put Live Meeting and WebEx up against each other pretty closely,” he admitted. “In fact you could probably tick a few more boxes with WebEx - in terms of the number of features it includes - but we're much more tightly integrated with Microsoft office - it's an almost seamless experience.”

The product category that Live Meeting and WebEx inhabit represents a tremendous opportunity for small companies, Anderson explains. “To benefit from such comprehensive solutions you must usually be a big firm, but because these are hosted online small companies can get exactly the same solution.”

Available in various price packages to help businesses pick the package that best fits its budget and service requirements, Live Meeting and WebEx have more similarities than differences.

For example, the process of starting meetings is a cinch with both. In the case of Live Meeting, team members can choose to schedule a meeting normally - via Outlook - and then just jump onto the web site and start from there. Or there is the option of starting from within one of many MS Office apps. WebEx meanwhile, with its arguably more stylish and appealing interface, includes a one-click meeting opening function that also works from within Outlook, in fact its Office integration is as seamless as you could possibly hope for a non-MS product.

Both MS and WebEx solutions allow a member of staff to chair a meeting. In the case of Live Meeting for instance, the chairperson can see all the delegates on a colour-coded seating chart, with coloured dots representing each colleague. WebEx's floating power panels meanwhile give the chairperson even wider director responsibilities, allowing them to control which users can listen to what's being said, which can chip in with audio comments, who can take over the presentation and so on.

Once everyone is in situ, there are a couple of ways users can interact on projects. Any file within Windows can be uploaded and shared (or in the case of WebEx, pretty much any file at all). For users sharing Microsoft files such as Powerpoint presentations, Live Meeting's native format support is obviously a plus, in that a user can upload a presentation that users will see in its original format, rather than a hosted solution such as WebEx, which converts files into its own Universal Communications Format for other users to then view.

With both WebEx and Live Meeting, several feedback mechanisms exist through which staff can ask questions about what is being presented or discussed. In Live Meeting, these mechanisms include a Q&A box, which is exclusively managed by one team member (ideally different to the chairperson to speed along proceedings.) An IM-style chat function is also included so that colleagues can ask each other questions about what’s being said. Participants can themselves also gain permission from the chair to jump in and flesh out the points being made by taking control of the mouse cursor to elaborate or explain, a process that’s particularly easy with WebEx.

Double the difference

The key differences between Live Meeting and WebEx are-two fold and cover IP audio and video. Basically, WebEx allows these, whereas Microsoft's argument is that such features don't yet make the grade.

With Microsoft's approach, the chairperson or current leader of a meeting can broadcast IP audio to the entire group, which makes giving a presentation to colleagues or talking partners through a software product eminently do-able. However, for a meeting to double as a true audio conference then the business must have conference call functionality set-up on its phone systems. This is an extra hassle when compared to WebEx's all-in voice and video IP offer, particularly for smaller firms that have one or two colleagues chipping in from different territories but who's conference call solution might not stretch that far.

“I think the experience most people have today is that the amount of potential issues you run into, as integrated voice and web conferencing session often surpass the benefits you might get out of it,” Anderson explains.

This point about IP telephony not being reliable is certainly debatable and will - in truth - be determined by a business's available bandwidth and thus the speed of its internet connections. WebEx's team will likely disagree with Anderson, as IP audio is included with its offer as standard. In contrast though, the teleconferencing audio functionality that Microsoft expects to be used with Live Meeting can instead be tied into WebEx via an optional module.

To bring this piece back full circle to the initial findings by RoperASW and Tandberg that suggested the best communications come from being able to see your colleagues, it's here that WebEx shines as the service to beat, as it allows multipoint videoconferencing. Therefore any user with a webcam atop their PC (and of course fast internet) can get involved. Video colleagues can then link in seamlessly to a meeting that also includes audio-only participants. As anyone who has tried a full video web conference before might expect, Anderson's point about IP communi-cations being far from perfect does have some validity, as each user's net speed must be high enough to be able to enjoy viewable video. But at the very least, having this option will appeal to many.

As shown in the box-out above, several service packages are available for both packages. WebEx's approach however is quite distinctive, as it offers actual tailored versions of its solution for different types of use. Its general communication and collaboration tool, WebEx 'Meeting Center', best meets the needs discussed in this article. Its Support Center service is then aimed at technical staff helping their colleagues, its Sales Center is aimed at staff giving sales presentations online and so on.

Windows' advice for the business owner reading this then is to try before you buy. We did and were impressed by both solutions. Talking to your in-country Microsoft partner about such a trial is one option, or else head over to the Live Meeting pages of Microsoft.com (see box) and you can sign-up for a 14-day trial. In WebEx's case, a similar two-week trial period is offered for free.

Price to Price
How Live Meeting and WebEx compare


12-month contract option
US $75 per named host per month (minimum five named hosts)

Pay per use meetings
From $0.33 per minute, per user.

Prices may be lower from local partners

Named user license
Designed for customers who frequently conduct meetings with up to 15 users
· Standard edition - approx. $180 per user per year, plus annual fee
· Professional edition - approx. $300 per user per year, plus annual fee

Room license
Designed for customers who frequently conduct meetings with up to 15 users
· Standard edition - from $12,000 for a 50-seat room per year, plus annual fee
· Professional edition - from $20,000 for 50-seat room per year, plus fee

Monthly Minutes
No-commit plan or block of monthly minutes options
· Standard edition - from $0.35 a minute, plus $3,000 one-time fee
· Professional edition - from $0.45 a minute, plus $3,000 one-time fee

Shared seat
Based on the capacity to accommodate maximum concurrent users (the minimum is five) across all simultaneous meetings
· Standard edition - $900 per seat, plus $3,000 one-time fee
· Professional edition - $1,800 per seat, plus $3,000 one-time fee

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