We added new feature comparisons to our Online Meeting Software Review website

We recently tweaked the structure of webconferencing-test.com and have added new functionality comparison tables to the site – which you can find under the menu item Functional comparisons. This new setup allows our visitors to compare online meeting tools on a single page and get a side-by-side overview of solutions that offer the functionality they are most interested in. Continue reading

Microsoft’s Lync Online is not for everyone

When we last tested Lync Online the tool ranked 15th in our comparison of online meeting solutions. Back then the software had just passed the Beta phase so we wanted to now see how the online collaboration tool had been advanced over time.

Our first finding: Lync Online is not meant to be used as a standalone self-service web conferencing solution and setting it up requires substantial IT expertise. It may sound unproblematic that you need to open and configure your "personal" Office 365 cloud instance to run Lync Online, but we find Office 365 to be a very complex SaaS platform –  at least for those of us who are not IT professionals or well-trained Microsoft partners. Continue reading

Latency in data transfer is a huge issue in online meetings

A week ago we became a registered Cisco partner – after unsuccessfully trying back in 2009 – and were quite happy about this. We needed some help for details regarding the creation of WebEx trial account links and were invited to a web conference with Cisco partner support – naturally via WebEx Meeting Center. We had an online meeting from our office in Frankfurt, Germany with a US-based representative and after further evaluation with a Cisco European Partner Advisor professional based in Portugal.

In both cases we were amazed to see that during screen sharing there was a latency of up to 5 seconds at some points! This naturally made communication a bit complicated since we needed to jump between lots of web pages on Cisco's Partner Central extranet and never knew what the Cisco service desk was currently seeing.
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Wait a minute. Is this really ClickMeeting?

You know this feeling: You are sitting somewhere and your eyes wander back to one and the same person and all of a sudden you realize ‘hey, he looks exactly like …’. Well, we had that exact same feeling when we tested ClickMeeting. We were checking out the new video functionality and all of a sudden we realized ‘hey, this looks exactly like Adobe Connect’!
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HD video and our top-ranking online meeting solutions

Citrix, Adobe and Cisco: Three of the biggest online meeting solutions vendors have now integrated video functionality into their solutions. We checked them out and here is what we found:

All three tools offer not only video but rather HD video. And yes, the quality is very impressive. Citrix GoToMeeting limits the number of webcam participants to 6 unlike Cisco WebEx which allows up to 500 participants or Adobe Connect 8 where you have no restrictions at all. But as always bigger isn’t necessarily better. One downside of a video conference with let us say 20 participants is that you will need a lot of bandwidth to really get that HD quality. And with every new participant that joins the webcams on display just get smaller and smaller. Now we haven’t tried it with 20 participants ourselves but it probably is hard to see who is actually speaking.
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LiveOn shows promise but doesn’t make it into our ranking

The Japanese vendor LiveOn asked us to test their online meeting solution. At the risk of spoiling the suspense: The tool didn’t make it into our ranking.

But let us start at the beginning. The basic functionalities are all there and if we had to choose the scenario this solution is best suited for we’d say it definitely is online meetings planned in advance. Video is the central aspect of the solution, displaying the participant’s webcam streams in the main window. Functionalities such as whiteboard and screen sharing can be added in separate windows.

Now to the shortcomings… The tool runs on Windows only which really is a large restriction as we pointed out earlier – “Mac users are being neglected”. There are neither one-click meetings nor recurring meetings, and you can only enter a meeting room at the time the meeting is scheduled, no earlier. When we started our meeting it took us 8 minutes from clicking “enter room” to actually arriving in the room. Finally, there was no pricing information posted on the website.

User-friendliness and meeting-setup are the two major areas for improvement. The solution shows promise, but currently cannot be considered a serious alternative to the market leaders.

Meeting online with Google+

Google is going social. Now it is hard to come up with revolutionary concepts when others like Facebook have brought social networking to near perfection and solutions like Skype make you wonder how video chatting could be any easier. Google+ aims at providing all these services, manageable under one convenient location.

Since we focus on web conferencing we checked how easy it is to conduct meetings online with our Google+ test account. At the moment a Google+ participant can invite you to “hang out”. You will see this invitation posted on your Google+ account only, meaning there are no email invitations currently available.

So we hung out and checked which features Google+ provides. Video is easy and performs well. You also have a text chat option. The YouTube button is a nice touch, but it is still not working properly, i.e. not everyone can see the video – but that most likely has to do with Google still refining its service.

The bottom line for us is: Video, audio, and text chats are there which allow for rudimentary online collaboration. The fact that you need to be a member of the service and logged in to participate is a minus considering that for online meetings you want to have a barrier free experience rather than forcing every participant to open an account before joining a meeting. Screen sharing is what we definitely would expect to be added next. Throw in email notifications and the possibility to schedule meetings and we’re talking. But currently, Google+ really only is a place to hang out. And even with all those features added it just might not be the tool of choice for web conferencing.

Skype: Great for private chats and calls, not so great for web conferencing

Why did we include Skype in our ranking today? Or better: Why have we waited until today to do so?

Millions of users have been calling each other via Skype for years. If more than two users are in the call – Skype has been offering this functionality for quite some time now – you could say that they are in an „audio conference“. With version 4.1 for Windows and 2.8 for Mac, Skype introduced desktop sharing, which we like to refer to as screen sharing – for two and only two users. With version 5, Skype has enhanced its video functionality: now, for the first time ever, more than two Skype users can wave at each other without being in the same room.

This step-by-step inclusion of features that are important for web conferencing, and the popularity of Skype induced us to test the tool and compare it with the other online collaboration solutions in our ranking. Of course, Skype is chiefly in use for private „meetings“, which is why the focus of the developers understandably rests on the functionalities most relevant to the consumer, as e.g. video calls. With the introduction of desktop sharing, however, Skype has provided business users with an essential functionality for web conferencing, next to VoIP and chat.

The major reason why we haven’t considered Skype so far is just as mundane as it is essential: If you want to use Skype you need an account! And since the world is not quite as black and white and doesn’t change with such breath-taking speed as Michael Arlington likes to suggest in his little „TechCrunch Hightech-Startup-Corner“ the overwhelming majority of business users worldwide simply does not comply with this crucial prerequisite. And if we want to remain realistic for just a second: This will not change all to soon. A lot of potential business users have a big enough workload as is without trying to find the right balance between VoIP and POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) at the workplace. And, not to forget, many companies deny their workers usage of Skype straight out.

Nevertheless, Skype is already being used as a web conferencing solution in some online collaboration scenarios. Especially teams that are spread out across the globe need to make sure to coordinate their efforts and often resort to Skype as a solution. By introducing Skype into our ranking we want to demonstrate what you can do with the tool in regards to online collaboration, and what it leaves to be desired in comparison with established web conferencing tools.

In our test we did not give demerits for the fact that only registered users with an account can share their screens. But we did downgrade the ranking for the biggest – and most painful – gap: Screen Sharing, unlike video conferencing, is only possible between two users! Other turn-offs are:
- Switching mouse and keyboard control is not possible in screen sharing mode;
- Skype offers no marking tools;
- A meeting cannot be scheduled in advance and invitations cannot be announced via mail or Outlook-calendar.

Michael Arrington from Techcrunch posted a blog-post called „Skype Screen Sharing Is A Huge (And Free) Productivity Tool“ in which he lists the major advantages of Skype, i.e. that usage is free of cost and very intuitive. This argument is not really valid. There are well-established, free-of-cost web conferencing tools such as Mikogo and DimDim that offer much more and allow meetings between anybody – not just registered users. Ok, true: with Skype’s “always-on” mode users can start a screen sharing session in five seconds. Most of the webconferencing solutions we tested need between fifteen seconds for scheduled meetings and 60 seconds for ad-hoc meetings. But come on! That cannot seriously be considered a great advantage of Skype. So this is not a relevant criterion either.

Third-party vendors of web conferencing solutions are of no real help when it comes to closing the gap of missing functionalities in their integrated Skype versions. Providers such as Innerpass, Oneeko, Yugma, VuRoom, and Yuuguu basically only offer meeting hosts to include Skype users in their invitations and use Skype’s VoIP functionality. The actual conference is then held with the providers’ own platform, not Skype.

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?