October 25, 2013, 11:51 AM — Thomas Friedman famously announced that "the world is flat" in his 2005 book of that name. He was writing about globalization. In Friedman's view, voice over Internet (VoIP), file sharing, and wireless were the "steroids" that have accelerated the flattening of global commerce. Today I would add video over Internet, which has become more and more prevalent as bandwidth has improved.
The two leaders in the business Web conferencing space are Cisco WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting. A new product, My Web Conferences from a company named MyTrueCloud, promises to offer these leaders some lower-priced competition, though it lacks some of the refinements of the older products -- and the established players are both upgrading their offerings and decreasing their base prices in response to less expensive business services and free consumer offerings.
Some businesses do use consumer products for voice and video over the Internet: Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Google Voice (no video) are three I've used extensively. While these can be useful, they don't quite meet the criteria for business-grade Web conferencing.
These higher-end products are expected to simultaneously deliver desktop shares, video, and audio; to provide high reliability and high quality; to integrate with common desktop software; and to work with mobile devices. They're also expected to handle large conference broadcasts, either in the base service or via a separate product. As we will see, there's a bit of variation among the business-grade products we are considering in all of these areas, as well as some differences in the bundling strategies.
Cisco WebEx Meetings
The doyen of the teleconferencing world, WebEx is now a total solution for preconference planning, conferencing, and postconference follow-up and action. In addition to supporting Windows, Mac, and Linux, WebEx has mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry, and it integrates with most Office and Office-like applications. (Microsoft Office plug-ins are provided by WebEx; Google Apps connectors are produced by a third party.)
One notable differentiator for WebEx is its ability to stream media from its servers to all participants. As a video producer, I often need to show media to remote audiences, and WebEx allows me to do that without serious lag or awkward workarounds. The downside of this capability is that WebEx converts uploaded video to a compressed but proprietary format. Similarly, WebEx allows recording of all conferences, but employs a proprietary format that requires using a media converter or special viewer application.
While the proprietary file formats are annoying, I wouldn't eliminate WebEx from consideration because of them. There are reasonably good technical reasons for those formats, primarily high compression, and the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.
I like the WebEx interface, and I like the meeting space concept. While you can certainly do meeting planning, scheduling, and document exchange via email, putting all of that in one place is a great convenience and helps to organize projects.
In general, I have had good experiences with the quality of WebEx audio and video, with a few small exceptions. Given that I was using a Wi-Fi connection at my end when I had audio dropouts, the problems could have had everything to do with my network and nothing to do with WebEx.
WebEx is a must-evaluate option for companies in the market for Web conferencing. Signing up for free gives you a 14-day trial of WebEx Premium 25, followed by a perpetual license to the free basic service. You do need to install plug-ins to use WebEx, which will require administrator permission, but WebEx even supports Linux.
While WebEx tends to bundle many of its services, Citrix breaks its similar services up into different SKUs. GoToMeeting does not include ShareFile, for example. On the other hand, Citrix's recently acquired Podio service provides the same combination of social collaboration, meetings, and file sharing as WebEx.
The GoToMeeting application has a control panel that slides out of the way when you don't need it, making it very easy to see who has joined, to transfer presenters, and to mute participants.
GoToMeeting installs a Windows or Mac client application to actually run Web meetings. While these applications are fairly small, download quickly, and work well, at times one version gets "stuck" and the required new version can't install. Citrix has recently addressed that problem by including the version number in the name of the GoToMeeting application and allowing multiple versions to reside in the application folder. Nevertheless, I still sometimes see what look like unnecessary application downloads triggered as I join someone else's meeting.
I've used GoToMeeting extensively for more than a year. In general, audio quality is good, but video quality can vary. I've noticed an improvement in video quality in the last month or so as GoToMeeting rolled out its HD video offering. GoToMeeting seems to have intelligent algorithms for favoring audio traffic over video traffic. While I have had GoToMeeting conferences disrupted by transmission or reception problems, there's always been an explanation that was external to Citrix's infrastructure, including local Wi-Fi issues, computer crashes, and cellphones going out of range of a tower.
GoToMeeting offers a 30-day free trial. That should be plenty of time to evaluate whether the service will work well for you. If you're looking for a free solution for a small group, the closest that Citrix offers is Podio Lite.
Podio Lite is a free five-employee, five-external-user version of the online work platform Podio. Podio was originally called Hoist, when its creators signed its first customers in 2009, and it was acquired by Citrix in 2012. Podio now uses Citrix's infrastructure -- GoToMeeting for Web conferencing and ShareFile for file collaboration -- while retaining its own Web "apps" for different types of workspaces.
I like the way Podio gives each project or meeting its own collaborative dashboard and the way it makes the network functionality feel subservient to the real work being done. At the end of the day, however, Podio and WebEx offer most of the same features and benefits, with somewhat different pricing models: Podio prices per-employee, and WebEx prices per-organizer.
MyTrueCloud My Web Conferences
MyTrueCloud is just coming out of stealth mode, and it hopes to challenge WebEx and GoToMeeting for a share of the meetings and webinars market with aggressive pricing, enhanced privacy and security, and high quality.
MyTrueCloud touts having no plug-ins or applications to install for My Web Conferences, but on a PC or Mac it requires Flash to use your microphone and webcam, as well as Java to record your screen. For non-computer-literate folks, these can be barriers. I had one conference where a creative director skipped over the Flash permission dialog and was never able to make himself heard; I take part of the blame for that as I didn't try to train him or set him up ahead of time. I know that MyTrueCloud is working on an improved user interface that will alleviate such problems.
Free toll-free minutes are part of most My Web Conferences subscriptions except for the $19-per-month 10-participant plan. That alone might make the product attractive for companies that incur high telephony charges for conferences. Additional toll-free minutes are available for 7 cents each on all plans. Using MyTrueCloud's VoIP is free, and you can integrate MyTrueCloud with Skype.
MyTrueCloud has an approach using meeting "rooms" to which an administrator can give different properties for different purposes: interviews, sales meetings, team meetings, webinars, and so on. This makes My Web Conferences competitive with WebEx Meetings and the lower end of WebEx Event Center, as well as with GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. These rooms also have some of the same functionality found in Podio.
MyTrueCloud offers 30-day free trials for all its products -- not only its Web conferencing, but also its CRM products, file sharing, document management, and collaboration suite. Given the aggressive pricing on the product itself and on toll-free conference calling, evaluating My Web Conferences in particular is worth doing for companies that need to control their conferencing budget.
My Web Conferences allows you to set the size of your video image, as well as choose your webcam and microphone. Larger images use more bandwidth. Most other Web conferencing systems don't allow you to control the camera resolution from within the product.
How to choose?
If you have plenty of time to evaluate Web conferencing software, your best bet is to try out all three options for yourself. WebEx offers a free 14-day trial of its 25-user edition, GoToMeeting offers a free 30-day trial, Podio Lite is completely free, and MyTrueCloud offers 30-day free trials for all its products.
If you'd like a shortcut to a solution, however, the answers to a few key questions will help point the way. Do you consider Web meetings isolated events, or are they part of a continuing process? For isolated events, GoToMeeting might be the first product to evaluate, as it is about the easiest of the products for new attendees. But if Web conferencing will be part of a continuing workflow, then WebEx or MyTrueCloud is likely to make you happier, as they have additional capabilities such as file storage tied to the meeting.
Are your remote interactions organized around projects? If so, Podio might be the first product you evaluate. Do you often need to play videos during Web meetings? Then WebEx should be first in line, as it can stream videos from the server instead of from the presenter's computer.
If you have users on Linux, then WebEx and MyTrueCloud might be the best options for you. If integration with Microsoft Office is high on your list or priorities, WebEx could be the place to start. Finally, if cost is your primary concern, MyTrueCloud should be the first product you evaluate, especially if you have many participants who want to call toll-free from a landline.