It took a week and a half because of scheduling conflicts and illness, but I finally got a look at the late Beta version of Citrix's GoToWebinar (first reported here on June 15). A big thank you to Sean at Citrix, my conduit to the secrets from the vault. The product is supposed to be released at the end of this week or beginning of next week, so I should have seen something pretty darned close to the shipping version. Still, any specifics related here are subject to change and I accept full responsibility for any inaccuracies in my description.
GoToWebinar is really a souped up version of Citrix's standard GoToMeeting product with additional features to support formalized public events. One important thing they have done in the new release of GoToMeeting to enable wider applicability is to let attendees view events from Macintosh computers. You still need a Windows operating system to present however.
GoToMeeting does not support the concept of uploaded files or documents. Everything is run as an application share from the presenter's desktop. While this eliminates problems associated with misconversion of slides and loss of transitions and animations in PowerPoint shows, it decreases scaling and caching that can potentially help the viewing experience.
Citrix assumes all audio communications will be conducted over the telephone. There is no accommodation for sound over a viewer's computer speakers. This makes sense for collaborative meetings, but audience members watching webinars and webcasts these days often like the option of listening via computer. To ease the burden, Citrix has partnered with BT Conferencing to provide an introductory chunk of teleconferencing minutes (roughly enough for one good sized event with 100 people listening for one hour).
The audio aspects of the overall webinar solution package are the most troubling for me. If you use BT Conferencing, you can automatically record your audio and web presentation together. But if you use another teleconferencing provider you have to hook up a hardware patch cable to your telephone and siphon off the sound to your PC as a digitized stream to be meshed with the video portion (I didn't get full details on the methodology and haven't tried it). WebEx has the same patch box recording limitation and it always bugs me when I have to go through the wiring and volume adjustment hassle.
The use of an audio conferencing partner that charges per minute of usage also undercuts Citrix's popular flat fee pricing model. GoToMeeting has always been licensed on an unlimited usage basis (within predefined maximums of number of attendees per event and number of licensed meeting hosts for a company). GoToWebinar will be priced in the same way (they haven't announced license costs yet). But you still have a variable cost thrown into your budget calculations because of the required audio side of things.
Those are the negatives up front. Offsetting them are some very nice positives.
GoToWebinar uses a dashboard strip of mini windows showing various statistics and functions for the webinar organizer and presenters. You can open and close individual functional windows and drag them around your desktop to match your own UI preferences. The audience statistics window offers some useful and unusual capabilities. You can see not only how many people are currently in attendance, but how many joined and then left the meeting. You can also see an instantaneous indication of how many people have shifted the window focus away from the GoToWebinar viewing frame (to answer emails, play Solitaire, or surf the Web?). This lets a presenter get a rough idea of whether s/he is holding the audience, allowing some kind of interactive trick to pull them back.
Audience members can also set little smiley or frowny faces as mood indicators. Admittedly, I don't like these quite as much as specific feedback indicators such as Speak Louder, Slow Down, and Speed Up, but it's nice to have something that gives attendees a perceived voice in how they are being treated.
Polls allow both single answer and multiple answer questions (eg: "Pick all that apply'). They show results as percentages without displaying the raw number of votes (useful when your total attendance isn't something you want to advertise!). One limitation here is that questions are limited to a maximum of five possible answers, and I've run into situations where I've wanted more options than that. There is also a Survey feature that lets you assemble a collection of questions with answers allowed in a 1-5 scale, short text responses, or longer essay responses (as well as multiple choice). Surveys are designed to be distributed after an event, rather than as an interactive feature in the middle of a presentation.
GoToWebinar really impressed me with its powerful and easy to use setup of registration and invitations. Each event gets the standard factual information such as date/time, title, and description. But then you can create both a registration page and HTML email invitations that use your own uploaded graphics (logos, images, speaker photographs), with a choice of predefined layouts, color selections, etc. It struck me as an excellent balance of flexibility and easy management. You can copy an existing event to reuse a template you have already established.
GoToWebinar also has the concept of a "waiting room", which is nothing more than a static slide that is automatically displayed before your event starts. Attendees see this when they log in early. You can use more sample layouts and upload your desired logos, graphics, and speaker information, along with arbitrary text information. It's a nice bit of unexpected functionality.
Registration pages include standard demographic fields that can be included or omitted, and you can add your own. Registrants can be automatically added to the attendee list or held for manual approval. You can also push registrants to a URL of your choice after they sign up, which might be useful for doing payment processing through an external system or simply for leading registrants to your corporate website.
Question and Answer features are fairly simple. You can answer a typed question privately or for the entire group to see. Attendee questions can be set for viewing by all or only by presenters. There is no facility to mark questions for later followup.
Recordings are stored in a proprietary Citrix format that can be converted to a standard WMA Windows Media file. In another nice cost-saving convenience, Citrix will host an event recording on their site for one year at no extra charge. The recording file is also available at no charge for download in case you want to host it on your own server or distribute it via email or CD.
Citrix says that GoToWebinar can handle audience sizes of up to one thousand.
The flexible organization and setup features, the general ease of use, and the consistency of interfaces between GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar make the pair a strong contender for general corporate use. If Citrix comes through with cut-throat unlimited usage pricing (a traditional strong point of theirs), the combo is poised for some serious success.
I'll try to do a follow-up report after I've had a chance to use the real product in a real setting, and we'll see how the reality matches the promise.