Why use web conferencing #4: What to look out for when selecting an online collaboration tool

When you go on the hunt for a web conferencing solution for your company you naturally take a look at the functionalities of the potential candidates first. And rightfully so. But there are other factors that need to be considered as well – such as cost.

Fees and licensing models differ from vendor to vendor. In general, web conferences create two types of costs: expenses for actual usage, in the form of license fees or rental charges, and costs of audio functionality – because visual collaboration within virtual teams is usually supplemented by conference calls.

Software as a service (SaaS) is highly suitable for small organizations and freelancers – because it is generally more cost-effective to pay monthly or annual fees rather than install and operate the tool on in-house servers.

Rental model rates depend on how much the tool is used, as well as on user behavior and the corresponding pricing models. Named-user licenses are an excellent option if there is a clearly defined group of multiple users, while concurrent-user licenses provide access to virtual meeting rooms, which is a good idea for a large number of people who rarely use the tool.

As an aside: We are observing that the general trend is drifting away from complex terms and rates towards transparent, clearly structured flat rates.

Another important factor to consider is the cost of phone calls for online meetings. Many tools come with integrated conference-call solutions. Whether these can be used or not depends on an organization’s existing telephony infrastructure. In terms of audio, VoIP solutions lead the field. But to benefit from this technology, participants must have a reliable broadband connection and a headset. Alternatively, conference-call solutions from a different vendor can be used parallel to the web conference. Because the various payment models used by participants in different countries can lead to considerable cost differences, it is worth taking a close look at what providers have to offer. A three-way conference using a regular phone system is often sufficient for meetings between two or three participants.

So, this concludes our series of looking at web conferencing as a whole. We are very certain that we have not mentioned everything there is to say on the topic. If you feel that we have ignored a key issue just let us know.

Gartner and Forrester only look at the big players and disregard some of the strong performers

A couple of weeks ago we mentioned in a post that we would have a look at some tools that are featured in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant but not in our ranking, since those specific web conferencing solutions did not comply with our basic criteria of evaluation.

Gartner and also Forrester apply their own criteria when testing online conferencing solutions. But are they really valid? Take one of Forrester’s vendor select criteria: To be eligible for testing, a vendor must have an annual revenue of over $500 million. Now really, does it matter to a user of an online conferencing tool what kind of revenue the vendor makes? We don’t think so. The most important factor is that the solution performs well. Some small vendors outperform the big players on the market and a comprehensive study of web conferencing solutions has to acknowledge this.

Gartner approaches the web conferencing market in a way similar to Forrester. Gartner assesses the financial health of the provider and the placement of the web conferencing tool in question within the organization’s product portfolio. The marketing strategy of the vendor is also ranked high priority. These criteria lead to the result that AT&T Connect is ranked better than Intercall Unified Meeting. In our tests we have found that the latter easily outperforms AT&T’s online conferencing solution.

Performance is key. If a tool is user-friendly and offers all necessary functionalities, it doesn’t matter what kind of market power is behind it, as long as the vendor is able to provide customers with reliable service. And there is absolutely no reason to assume that a small vendor cannot do this just as well or even better than one of the big players.

You can check out our comprehensive study of the web conferencing market here.

ISL Groop doesn’t make it into our ranking

The web conferencing solution ISL Groop failed in our first round of testing and will not be considered for detailed evaluation. The tool simply doesn’t perform in key areas when we apply our evaluation criteria.

Web conferences are set up in the online portal, which cannot be connected to a local email client. So the host must copy the email addresses of the attendees into the mail, which also does not contain an automated Outlook invitation. So in addition to not being able to effortlessly send an invitation to all attendees, the host cannot keep track whom he has invited – paper and pencil are not really an option.

ISL Groop only runs on Windows. For every meeting the tool creates a meeting-specific .exe-file, which means that the host must download and install anew for every meeting.

So really, there are many downsides to ISL Groop. If any updates are implemented we will go back and check again. But until that happens the solution will not be included in our comparison of online meeting tools.

The potential risk of screen sharing

Imagine you’re in a web conference, sharing your screen, when all of a sudden a chat window pops open because you forgot to close the app. Or worse, you forget that your screen is being shared and start typing your own chat message. Well, it happens to the best of us. It actually did just the other day, to a colleague. And it made us think.

Sharing your screen during an online conference can be very risky actually. Not only could you tick a business partner off with a chat message. At the end of a meeting, when a participant’s screen has been shared and the phone conference ends, the participant will often open his mail client before the host can end the meeting. So anybody still in the meeting could read the messages. And if undisclosed files are opened – well, you get the picture.

Users need to be aware what exactly is being shared, at all times. A Mac user sharing his screen with Citrix GoToMeeting can only show his entire screen. Sharing a single app is only possible with Windows. And it is easy to forget. Skype on the other hand – which we do not consider a web conferencing solution, but which serves for demonstration purposes – will not let you forget that someone is seeing your screen or parts of it, by marking the area in question with a red frame.

Now we don’t think web conferencing tools must necessarily go that far. But it should be easily distinguishable to anyone sharing his screen that he is doing so. So we are debating if this should weigh in as a security criteria rather than a mere usability feature.

What do you think? Is this only a minor inconvenience, or do you also regard it as a security risk?

Why use web conferencing #2: Usage scenarios for online meetings

In the search for a suitable web conferencing solution, the first question is: What will the tool be used for? In principle, tools are distinguished by two key factors: the number of participants they support, and the functions available for online meetings.

A traditional model is the one-to-one scenario, which is commonly employed to provide user support on software issues. At the other end of the spectrum, there are virtual conferences or trainings with large audiences, such as customer conventions, road shows, or webinars. For these scenarios, functions such as effective invitation management, integrated mute functions, and superimposed surveys and results are key. Between these two extremes, there are online meetings where smaller project teams work together from different locations spontaneously yet effectively – e.g. to discuss project plans or edit documents.

Small teams of two to ten, or even twenty people have different requirements when it comes to web-conference solutions: Setting up an online meeting should be quick and easy so it can be initiated ad hoc to accompany a phone call. In this case, it must be determined whether a tool enables users to start web conferences without prior invitation. Or whether a solution automatically generates email invitations that can be sent and read using common email clients. It is also crucial that new participants can be invited to a conference that is already under way – whether per email, URL, or by providing an access code for a conference call.

During meetings, any features that enable flexible, media-rich communications between all participants are important as e.g. the ability to switch between views of various users’ desktops, or to highlight or mark up content on the desktop currently being shown. Depending on the purpose of the conference, it may also be necessary to determine whether and how documents can be edited by multiple users at once. Chat functions facilitate communications between individual guests and the recording of web conferences is also useful if the interaction needs to be documented.

There are many good web conferencing solutions on the market which give you the opportunity to find the perfect fit for your company’s specific requirements. You will find details to the best tools in our ranking.

Why use web conferencing #1: The additional value of online collaboration

How can you best substitute face-to-face meetings if you need to save on travel cost? And is there a way to enable day-to-day, spontaneous and straightforward collaboration on projects or documents over the Internet? When faced with these questions a lot of companies immediately think of video conferences, which is a bit short sighted. True, you can see whom you are talking to. But how do you hold a presentation or work on a document with the other participants?

Sending documents back and forth via email also is not really a solution. And even instant messaging services such as Jabber, IRC, or AIM cannot truly compete with web conferencing. Those services simply impose too many restrictions, with demanding every participant have an account with the respective service as the top hindrance of easy meeting setup.

A good web conferencing solution only requires the host to download a small piece of software. He can then invite participants by sending them a link to the virtual meeting place, which means that all you need as a participant is a functioning Internet connection. What’s more, nearly all web conferencing solutions include a messaging functionality that allow two or more participants to communicate via text chat, without interrupting or stalling the meeting. Participants can share and work on documents, hold presentations, and much more.

So really the question shouldn’t be IF you should use a web conferencing solution for virtual meetings but rather what other functionalities online collaboration services offer you for your specific usage scenario.

You can check out our test approach here to learn more about the functionalities offered by web conferencing solutions and how they weigh into our evaluation.

Why should companies consider web conferencing?

In this Blog we talk a lot about the pros and cons of specific tools. True, we enjoy giving a thumbs up or down, but we think it is time to take a step back and have a look at the whole of web conferencing. The thing is: web conferencing tools are constantly improving and making life easier for small to medium businesses, but awareness is still growing slowly – even though researchers indicate the market for web conferencing solutions will grow significantly over the next 5 years.

We published an article in the renowned German IT magazine iX in which we looked at web conferencing as a whole. We will try to present you this article in condensed form, by splitting it into a four-part series.

Part one will point out the differences between web conferencing and IM services or video conferences. In part two we will delve into the usage scenarios of online collaboration services. Part three will feature one of our favorite topics: how can you best share documents when conferencing? The final part four will look at what you need to be aware of when making your choice of which solution you want to use.

So stay tuned and feel free to contact us any time with feedback and questions.

Online gamers will love this: 3D web conferencing tools

We were quite intrigued when we stumbled upon 3D tools during research – and couldn’t wait to test them. There are different ways of bringing the third dimension into web conferencing. We started with the one tool that seemed most fun: Tixeo WorkSpace3D.

What’s fun about web conferencing you ask? Well, for starters, Tixeo lets you create an avatar and gives you the choice between different hairstyles or differently colored shirts for example. You can then chose between a set of meeting rooms in which you see the other participants’ avatars during a meeting and can walk up to them to literally join the group. If someone wants to present a document, a screen pops up and hovers above the ground. The avatars are pretty fast too, but you cannot jump or punch the other participants…

So much for the fun part, which really is more of a gimmick. A scenario where the 3D bit offers additional value is e.g. if architects or realtors want to give the participants a feel for the planned building or the apartment for sale. With Tixeo you can walk participants through the rooms.

If we step down one dimension again and look at the basic functionalities, Tixeo doesn’t do too good in comparison to other tools. There is no Outlook integration for the invitation process, the host cannot lock the meeting room, and meetings cannot be recorded. Then again, this is an early version, and all the basics are there. But to consider it for our ranking we will have to wait for improvements in future releases.

So what do you think about 3D for web conferencing: Yay or nay?