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Web Conferencing Evaluation Guide

How to find the right software for your web and video conferencing requirements

Before you evaluate online meeting software it’s important to know what key features and options exist, what they do, and why they are so important. Click on a topic in the list below to learn more.

1. MEETING TYPES
2. COLLABORATION TYPES
3. SUPPORTED COMMUNICATION CONTENT
4. IMPLEMENTATION TYPES
5. MOBILE USE & PLATFORM INDEPENDENCE
6. SOLUTION TYPES
7. SPECIAL BUSINESS REQUIREMENTS
8. VENDOR STABILITY, SUPPORT & REFERENCES

1. MEETING TYPES

1.1    Web conference

A collaborative virtual meeting of one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many. Participants can swap roles (active/passive) at any time. Usability is key: even first-time users should be able to set up, invite and participate quickly and intuitively.

1.2 Webinar

A virtual one-to-many presentation. As a rule, all participants except the presenter are muted during the presentation but may give feedback via text chat. Good webinar solutions have a wide range of functionalities, e.g., reminder emails for registered participants, a webinar landing page for topics and logins, and a comfortable chat and survey tool. The infrastructure should have sufficient headroom to support hundreds of participants smoothly. 

1.3 Webcast

A virtual event with a large number of participants. The focus is not on interactivity. Often requires complex transmission technology (video stream) and is usually offered as a hosted service. Solutions should also be able to support high numbers of participants (>1000).

2. COLLABORATION TYPES

2.1 Desktop sharing / Screen Sharing

In theory, all participants can view and process all the content on the virtual desktop; in practice, access can be restricted manually. Desktop sharing is ideal for internal collaboration, since you can move from one application or document to another whenever you wish. Good solutions let you conceal personal items (cluttered desktop, cute wallpaper) or confidential data (email folders etc.) during more formal meetings. 

2.2 Virtual room

Only the documents you upload are visible during your online meeting. Advantage: full control. Disadvantage: Less flexibility when processing documents and content; less intuitive than working from your own desktop (e.g., right-clicking does not work in Flash-based web conferencing tools).

3. SUPPORTED COMMUNICATION CONTENT

3.1 Web conference

see 1.1

3.2 Audio conference

Solutions that integrate audio and web conferencing make it easier to send invites, since you only need to convene a single conference. Will your company need to use normal telephones ("Plain Old Telephone Service" - POTS) and also Voice over IP (VoIP)? For POTS, make sure participants can dial in from all countries, and check which language the software menu uses. Make sure you compare costs with your current phone conference provider (if you have one). Also, find out whether you can adopt a professional audio conference solution that’s already in use elsewhere in your company. 

3.3 Video conference

Originally for board members only, video conferencing has now trickled down and spread through corporate cultures. The more remote partners you have (team members, contractors, freelancers, home office staff), the more important it is for them to be able to link up visually – and the more you need a web conferencing solution with integrated video. Critical parameters include bandwidth (up to 500 kb/sec per participant), and confidentiality (many people are sensitive to the risks of being monitored or seen without their permission). For large enterprises, it can make sense to integrate video conferencing in a telepresence solution.

4. IMPLEMENTATION TYPES

4.1 Shared hosted service (SaaS)

Software as a Service (SaaS) means you lease your solution from a web conferencing provider who provides a turnkey solution. There is nothing to install - a client application at the most - and no local server infrastructure is required. Provided you use a reputable provider, high bandwidth is assured regardless of where your participants dial in. This makes SaaS ideal for web conferences that cannot not rely on LANs or WANs alone.
Since SaaS is a scalable, on-tap service, you can book extra capacity on a one-off basis as required. Bear in mind that security is particularly important, since all data flow through the server of a provider who may be headquartered abroad. Also, costs can be higher than with a license model if you have a high number of participants.

4.2 Local installation

Local installations can be attractive for larger SMEs and major companies. They are installed on your own premises, and behind your company firewall. You purchase bulk licenses for your participants, and are responsible for installation, operation and support yourself.
Local installations can work out cheaper than SaaS if you already have your own IT support team. Many companies feel they are safer than SaaS if they only require an internal solution. If you have ample LAN / WAN bandwidth, performance can be better than with an SaaS; if not, capacity issues can be a bottleneck. The more participants dial in, the more bandwidth their dial-in nodes will require.

When comparing solutions, make sure both internal and external participants will be able to dial in. Also, examine how well you can integrate the solution into your IT landscape and existing applications.

4.3 Hybrid installation

Hybrid installations aim to give you the best of both worlds: A secure, cost effective local platform for internal meetings, and a high performance hosted service (SaaS) for meetings that include external participants. Hybrid products can be attractive for larger SMEs and major companies who want to combine the benefits of SaaS (license model, scalability, turnkey solution, global bandwidth) with on-premise storage of data from internal meetings.

5. MOBILE USE & PLATFORM INDEPENDENCE

Mobile web conferencing makes sense, but only if the devices you use have a big enough screen and processor. This is why most of the solutions currently on offer are designed for Apple’s iPad, its Android competitors, or both. Functionality varies widely between different vendors, and the biggest companies do not always perform best. Platform compatibility is particularly important when web conferences include external partners, who may not use the same hardware as you do.  

6. SOLUTION TYPES

6.1    Specialized solution (focus on web conferencing)

These solutions offer the highest levels of comfort and usability, and are designed for fast, easy implementation. Examples include GotoMeeting, Adobe Connect and Cisco Webex.

6.2    Integrated solution (unified communications)

Integrated solutions provide seamless integration of all your office and telephone applications. Among other things, you can check participant availability intuitively, and coordinate dates and deadlines effortlessly in your integrated evironment, e.g. MS Exchange. Implementing them, however, is an extremely complex task for IT, and takes time - much more than introducing a SaaS solution. Major companies often already hold licenses as part of an Enterprise License Agreement. Examples of integrated solutions include Microsoft OCS, Lync, and IBM Sametime.

7. SPECIAL BUSINESS REQUIREMENTS

7.1    Virtual classroom

If you mainly need web conferencing for online training courses, it makes sense to consider a virtual classroom solution. As in most niche markets, the products on offer vary widely. Some are extensions of existing web conferencing software (e.g., WebEx Training Centre or Citrix GoToTraining, Adobe Connect); some provide a mix of web conferencing and eLearning (e.g., Saba and Elluminate); others deliver dedicated products that focus entirely on virtual classroom scenarios (e.g., LMS, Skytap, eLecta and GC Learning Services).

8. VENDOR STABILITY, SUPPORT & REFERENCES

Before you invest in a web conference solution, it’s wise to consider the track record and prospects of the vendor who supplies it. Many businesses that already work with software from giants like Microsoft, IBM or Cisco will prefer to ‘keep things in the family’ and simply extend their existing cooperation. Other companies find that younger, smaller suppliers tend to be more agile, or offer products that are easier to tailor to specific scenarios.