Category: Web-based meeting software
Name of tool: Webex
Company name: Webex Communications Inc.
Price: Fees vary, free trial available for 10-minute meetings of up to four users
Windows platforms supported: 95, 98, NT, 2000 with Internet Explorer
Quick description: Document sharing, presentation and Web-based tours all through your browser.
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
Extremely easy and straightforward to use. A number of tools to support real-time meetings are available.
Each PC browser configuration may vary, and users need to verify that their equipment can support the Webex platform.
The service is not recommended for dial-up users.
These days, few of us want to get on planes and travel across country just for a one-hour meeting. And while video conferencing is still expensive and fussy, there is a better way: hold the meeting over the Internet, using everyone's PC to watch the presentation.
It is a great idea, and in the past year dozens of vendors have perfected the ability to support real-time meeting services. You can check out links to them on my own Web site. Basically, all you need is a high-speed Net connection, a relatively decent PC (say 300 MHz Pentium 3 or better), and a recent browser version (most of these services run on Internet Explorer version 4 or better). The one that I like the most is from Webex.
As a meeting participant, you want to do as little as possible to get connected and begin your meeting. Some of the other services require various software to download, or things to setup. Webex doesn't. Other than registration to identify who you are and which meeting you are connecting to, it couldn't be much simpler.
As someone leading the meeting, Webex offers various tools to convert your PowerPoint slides and other materials into their own format. Once the meeting starts, you have a "control center" where you can advance your slides for your presentation, bring up Web pages for everyone to see, and move files to your participants' desktops. It is all very straightforward.
I have done several Webex meetings over the past year as both presenter and participant. As a presenter, I like the fact that the software doesn't get in the way of conducting the meeting, but allows me do my presentation. I can keep track of who is still connected, which is critical if you are doing a large meeting and want to see if you are losing your audience. As a participant, there isn't much to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Webex offers several different service levels. To get a feel for how the product works, for free you can conduct a 10-minute meeting with up to four people. You can share your PowerPoint slides, synchronize a tour of various Web pages, take control over someone's desktop and transfer files back and forth among the meeting participants. The fee-based service is either ala carte or subscription-based. The former is based on the number of participants and the number of minutes of your meeting, charging you a flat rate of 45 cents per participant and per minute of your meeting. The latter is a custom plan that depends on the number of meetings and users per month, and provides customized branding with your corporate logo. The custom plan can also archive the meetings so participants can listen after they take place.
I have tried Webex from a dial-up account, and while it works, I wouldn't recommend it. The best use is for higher-speed connections to the Internet.
Webex doesn't do the audio for your presentation on your computer: for that you'll need to connect everyone via a telephone conference call. This is probably best, as the services that I have used to provide the audio channel over the PC are full of problems. Windows and sound cards are still not quite industrial-strength; the sound quality from your PC over the Internet and its associated latencies are nowhere near the level provided from the telephone network. You can have Webex do the phone portion of your program for a modest fee: if your users want to call into a central bridge number, Webex charges five cents per minute per user, or 15 cents per minute if you want to originate the calls.
Long distance is the next best thing to being there, and Webex makes holding long-distance real-time meetings easier to be sure.
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant, and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.