The simplicity of collaboration with Zoom

We have added Zoom into our overall ranking and it secured rank number 2 with 95.4%. Zoom offers a broad range of advanced functionality that allows it to compete directly with our highest ranked tool, Citrix GoToMeeting. 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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How video functionality weighs into our ranking

Video has been in use privately for quite some time but has been ridiculously slow in regards of becoming really useful for business online collaboration. Now that an increasing number of employees who need to attend or host online meetings either have a mobile computing device with a built-in camera or an external webcam plugged in, web conferencing vendors feel the time has come to integrate video into their solutions. And since internet connections are getting faster and faster why not go to HD while they are at it?

Now where does this leave us and our ranking of online meeting tools? Well, first of all there will be no shift of focus. We will not rank a tool higher just because it makes it possible for you to wave into a camera. The focus will remain on functionalities that enable and/or enhance online collaboration. Desktop screen sharing and the document- and information-centric joint working with applications really is the key to all online collaboration technologies.

So far we had only figured in video at the margin, giving a tool a minor increase in overall score if it enabled video. But this yes/no logic really does not reflect this specific functionality well enough anymore. If a vendor offers video in his software we want to know the following:

  • Can you scale the videos? It is really annoying if you have huge heads staring at you while you try to read text on a presentation that is displayed in a corner of the screen. Users should be able to move cameras and re-size them to their liking.
  • How does a tool handle the enormous amount of data being streamed? The software must be backed up by a powerful server infrastructure that can handle all data upstreams and downstreams. Regardless of the number of participants or the single participants’ internet connection the tool must deliver video without compromising the overall quality of the online meeting.
  • Are voice and video connected? If two or three people are in a conference it is fairly easy to identify the speaker. But if you have six participants in a conference and are discussing a document that is being displayed you do not want to be stuck having to check whose lips are moving. So the current speaker should be highlighted by the tool.
  • Are voice and video not only connected but in sync? You don’t want to be talking and see that on the screen your lips are moving a second later than when you are actually forming the words.

We will consider these options – and potentially more we might consider useful – in our future tests and make sure that video has a greater influence on overall score than it currently has. Video can really enhance an online meeting if it is integrated into the software wisely. Video functionality must seamlessly fit into the tool and really offer the users an additional advantage. It is all about user friendliness and if video doesn’t enhance the usability of a web conferencing solution it shouldn’t be integrated in the first place.

Video is becoming an integral part of web conferencing solutions

We at Online Meeting Tools Review have treated video conferencing as a side aspect so far. But there currently is a trend in the online collaboration market to include high quality video into well structured web conferencing tools, opening up many new possibilities for holding online meetings.

Until recently video was basically being used in businesses for the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Many larger companies had proprietary high-end conferencing systems installed in dedicated meeting rooms, based on the technology provided by Cisco, Polycom, Tandberg and the likes. These served as a somewhat expensive toy in C-Level meetings spread over various locations and even continents.

Scenario 2: Teams spread over different locations make use of low-end solutions. There are basically two ways for teams to collaborate using video conferencing technology:

  1. Freeware such as Skype and now also Google+ hangouts are an easy way to connect. The only requirement is that all participants need to have an account for the respective platform before they can start a video conference. With Skype users get some web conferencing functionalities as the tool allows e.g. screen sharing. However, many organizations prohibit users from using tools like Skype, due to security concerns.
  2. Apple and Microsoft make it possible: Teams can also collaborate via tools that are tied to the respective OS or vendor-based server technologies, such as Apple’s iChat and Microsoft’s Lync and OCS (Office Communication Server). These do work pretty well for video conferencing, however typically only within the organization’s firewall.

Another general restriction to video conferencing used to be the relatively low number of users with webcams. This is becoming less of an issue due to huge increases in mobile devices which usually feature a built-in webcam of some sorts and of course cheap external devices that can be used via plug and play. Privately these have been used for quite some time now and web conferencing vendors are now feeling conditions have changed sufficiently for them to integrate video into their solutions and actually offer customers additional value by doing so.

So with business users having their webcams in place, strong enough internet connections to actually allow HD (High Definition) video streaming it seems that conditions are near perfect for web conferencing vendors to integrate video into their tools. We will give you our take on this trend shortly and we’ll let you know how we will be figuring video functionality into our overall ranking.

Are you currently using a video conferencing solution on a regular basis for business purposes? If so just leave a comment and let us know what solution you are using and how that is working out for you.

Web conferencing helps business travellers sidestep the looming strike of German air traffic controllers

As Deutsche Welle reports, German air traffic controllers are likely to go on a six-hour strike beginning Tuesday at 6 a.m. if it is not called off at the last second.

This strike would cause quite some chaos for all those currently on vacation and of course those who need to travel on business. Just as last year – when that Icelandic volcano that is impossible to pronounce correctly offset travel throughout Europe – business travellers can make the best of their situation and take their meetings online if they cannot make it to their destination.

With a laptop entire presentations can be held and those travelling light with either a tablet or their smart phone with them can at least attend meetings and follow what others are presenting. Check out our ranking of online collaboration tools that will enable business travellers to hold or attend a meeting even if they are stuck at an airport or decide not to travel at all.

Is slow data transfer in online meetings a result of server location?

Another question rolled in just the other day: “Are there delays in online conferences due to the location of the vendors’ servers? And if so, are there vendors that guarantee quick transfer of data?”

That is a valid question, the scenario being that the host and attendees are all located e.g. in Europe meeting online with a web conferencing solution hosted in the U.S. In that case all data would be routed from Europe to the U.S. and then back again. Even though the data has to travel quite a bit that should not lead to any noticeable delays.

There are days on which an online meeting will be tedious, however, when images just won’t load or there is a lag between picture and voice. This cannot always be blamed on server location but rather has to do with conditions at the attendees’ locations as well as the size of data packages you are sending and receiving. The server’s capacity naturally also plays a role – so a tiny little server next door might perform worse than a high-performance server park on another continent.

Bottom line: If your network is slowed down for whatever reason your online conference will be slow, too, and as long as the servers don’t crash they are not likely to be the cause of slow performance when meeting online. And that also answers the second part of the question: Vendors can only do so much to influence quick data transfer. They cannot guarantee that it will be quick 24x7x365.

Online meetings and nonverbal communication

Next to giving us feedback on our evaluation and ranking of online meeting solutions our readers approach us with questions that make us go “Waaait a minute. Why is that???” Point in case: Why is nonverbal communication hardly ever considered in web conferencing scenarios?

Let us leave the digital arena and look at good old face-to-face communication – remember that? Now here, obviously, nonverbal communication is essential to guiding understanding. Gestures e.g. can be used to signal approval or to show that you have a question. Even nodding the head carries a message, and don’t get me started on overall body language. So yes, the nonverbal aspect of communication is integral in a face-to-face scenario.

And it partially applies to online meetings, too. If all participants are on webcams that will make it a lot easier to interact than just talking on the phone would. One drawback, however, is that with multiple participants being displayed on your screen you could end up being more confused than informed (see our post on video conferencing).

For webinars nonverbal communication is of marginal help if any. Question marks or a thumbs up – thumbs down signal for the listeners are a gimmick rather than an essential part of communication. During a webinar the silent listeners in most cases have the chance to submit questions to the presenter via chat. These questions are then later discussed in a Q&A session following the presentation. Clicking a question mark button is only an indication of the fact THAT you don’t understand something. You would still have to explain WHAT exactly you don’t understand. And hitting a like or dislike button during e.g. a product presentation doesn’t seem to likely – if you are not a competitor trying to crash the presentation, that is.

So bottom line: Nonverbal communication only plays a minor role in online meetings. The only way of making up for the consequential lack of information that is usually provided by nonverbal signals is to be even more precise in how you phrase things.

Mac users are being neglected by web conferencing vendors

There has been a large hype about web conferencing solutions for mobile devices for the last couple of months. And rightfully so. The mobile market – with the iPhone and iPad as forerunners – is growing at an incredible rate so it is mandatory that vendors of online collaboration tools make their solutions available to this growing customer segment.

Now this segment has been rudimentarily covered by the vendors, and the mobile applications – which we have tested extensively – make it possible for attendees on the run to experience an online meeting with the limitations their mobile devices set. So what is the next trend now? HD-video!

All well and good, but with all these new developments there is one thing that vendors keep disregarding. Of course it is nice to have new and flashy features. However, if you only make these available to one set of users and give the rest of us only basic functionalities, something is amiss.

You might have guessed it: We are speaking of the divide between Windows users and Mac users. What web conferencing vendors tend to disregard is that the online meeting market is different from all other software markets in one fundamental aspect: the rule that you need to make sure to cover the requirements of the vast majority (Windows users) before everything else does not apply. And why not? Simply because even though the Mac OS X user group is still small in comparison you do not know with which device an attendee will log into the meeting.

Even if only one attendee logs into the meeting with his Mac and the solution you are using does not support that, you have a problem. Fortunately, the better ranked tools in our comparison all offer some degree of Mac compatibility, which allows for attendance and collaboration in varying degrees. But even GoToMeeting clearly favors Windows users, and hasn’t developed their solution for Mac OS X further in the last years.

In our tool reviews we point at compatibility of the solutions with common Operating Systems. We will be keeping a close look at this issue and if a tool doesn’t show any promise of improving the service for Mac users, we will consider deducting points from the overall score. And no, that is not too harsh. This is a major factor in user friendliness, since a web conferencing host should not have to worry about whether everyone is able to follow him.

You expect crystal clear audio conferencing over the phone? Get real – and get a USB headset.

Audio is an integral part of web conferencing. There are two ways of providing audio service: either a vendor offers an integrated VoIP solution or they offer POTS (plain old telephone service) aka. landlines.

The quality of VoIP is generally very good and exceeds that of a standard phone conference by far. And integration of VoIP should actually be no biggie for the vendors since they simply need to add the audio to the web conferencing functionality already in place. Yet, mostly phone conferences are used for web conferencing. How is that?

Well, even though with broadband easily accessible to deliver the VoIP, many users of online collaboration tools are missing one integral part of the solution: A decent USB headset or computer mike. And many users also feel it is easier to pick up the phone and dial into a phone conference in parallel to the online meeting. Big vendors clearly have an advantage here since they have the resources to provide an infrastructure of geographically dispersed audio bridges to even enable this functionality.

There is a trend in web conferencing, however, that shows an increase of VoIP usage. The increase is slow, but it is noticeable. Mobile devices play a role here because e.g. on an iPad you need VoIP since users will hardly be sitting next to their office phone when participating with an iPad or smart phone.

What will happen in the near future is the following: while VoIP clearly is the future, vendors will provide both POTS audio service and VoIP. And they will have to, because offering only one will equal a huge loss in revenue simply because too many users will be shut out. To get users to adapt to VoIP quicker, vendors should maybe consider bundled offers of web conferencing services plus the necessary peripherals such as USB headset and webcam.

And yes, if you have a fairly new computer it is likely to have an included mike that delivers a decent sound quality as well as a webcam. But this is not the case for a vast majority of office computers. And until that changes, adaptation to VoIP will remain a slow process.