After my brief mention the other day of ReadyTalk's new release announcement, I got a note from Mike McKinnon, their Social Media Director (Don't look at me like that... That's the job title on his email signature!)
Mike offered to take me on a pre-release tour of the new features. We met using the ReadyTalk software and integrated telephone conferencing. You join a meeting as an audience member by going to the company's website in your favorite web browser and entering the meeting number your host has sent you. The meeting page loads a Java application within the browser window and all actions occur within that space. There is no client software installed on your PC hard drive. Because of this web-based approach, all the major operating systems and browsers are supported (anything that can handle Java, which is just about universal these days). Mike proudly pointed out that their development staff includes people using Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers.
One of the weaknesses of the browser implementation is that you get a big empty launch page in your browser that has to stay open throughout the meeting (although you can minimize that window to your task bar). There is a message telling attendees that "Your meeting will end if you close this window, refresh this page, or click Back or Forward." Unfortunately, in any meeting of a reasonable size, Murphy's Law says that someone will mess with that window either by accident or to test the truth of the message. (There is a confirmation window popup if you try to navigate away from the launch page.)
ReadyTalk is still primarily a collaborative meeting room product that sometimes gets used for auditorium-style events. Its roots came from a desire for a product without a lot of bells and whistles that would let people meet online quickly and easily, without connection problems or installs requiring administrator-level authority. For this reason, the product doesn't contain features such as integrated registration pages for scheduled events or fancy audience feedback indicators. A standard use license lets you hold a conference with up to 96 participants, although you can make arrangements with ReadyTalk if you need to host a larger event and they'll provision more ports.
I find the ReadyTalk presenter and attendee interface to be intuitive and easy to work with. I can't imagine people would need much in the way of formal training, although if you've never worked with things such as online annotation tools, you might want a pointer on how to use the pointer. Speaking of annotations, they don't have all of the features I like (such as being able to drag a box around an item), but the ones that are there are designed well. Pointers point to the right so you can place them next to text without covering up the content (Seems obvious until you run across a company with big left-facing pointers!) You can drag and drop an annotation around the screen. You can erase a single annotation or all annotations with a single mouse click, instead of requiring you to go through multiple selections and confirmation messages. They also didn't implement a "laser pointer" (drag a red dot around the screen), which makes me happy. It's the most overused annotation tool by presenters and usually doesn't look good on audience screens.
Highlights of the new feature set (due for public release at the end of October) include:
- Single sign on login for an event "chairperson" (their name for a host or event administrator). The previous interface for doing administrative activities was disjointed and involved logging on to separate web pages, each asking for authentication. They've fixed that design with more logical tabs and access to all functions from a single interface.
- Email invitations for attendees. Mike says they have consciously broken their dependence on using a Microsoft Outlook plugin for email activities. Now any user with an email system can get invitations sent out with easy to configure combinations of selectable content templates and freeform text. I mentioned their strong international telephone network in my last entry, and the email feature lets you select audience countries at will, as it automatically fills in the appropriate local toll free dial-in number from that country for your conference. Another great feature of their telephone service is that international rates are flat fee from any country. Many of the big name telephone conferencing providers make you estimate how many callers you'll have from each specific country and then charge you different rates for each calling country. Icch! Recipients get a link in their email message allowing them to load an iCal appointment for the meeting directly into their email calendar.
- Since there is no formal pre-event registration in ReadyTalk, they gather attendee information as each person joins the meeting. The new release lets you add up to five configurable information fields in addition to "Name" (which is always there and required). I suggested that they might want to increase the flexibility on the name field as well so that customers downloading attendance information into databases or sales management systems can use separate first and last name fields if desired.
- One of the fanciest new features attempts to bridge the gap between web meetings and the booming medium of audio podcasts. You can generate an MP3 audio podcast file of the audio stream from your meeting and even assign it a category and keywords so it's ready for listing on a service such as iTunes. They'll even create a URL for an RSS feed so subscribers see the new content in their feed reader. Of course you also have the option to record the combined web and audio together in a video file.
You can upload slides to your meeting room and they'll stay there, ready for you the next time you open the room. But slides are converted to static images, so you lose animations and slide transitions. You can insert and delete individual slides, which is useful for small changes without redoing the whole deck. Slides will scale down to fit a smaller application window, but they won't scale up past a preset limit. Small text doesn't survive the conversion process too well, but color gradients are retained smoothly. The company generally advises users to rely on application sharing to show any complex slide shows involving movement features.
Application sharing allows you to display your entire desktop or a named application, but not everything within a user-defined frame on the desktop. There is an option setting that lets the chairperson adjust the bandwidth and quality used for app sharing. You can slide it towards fast transmission or high quality graphics.
You do get a type-in "chat" interface that lets the chairperson send replies to an individual or to all, but it's not as complex and feature rich as some other products. There is no whiteboard for scribbling (something I have still never used in a real conference)
Because the telephone conference is integrated with the web controls, you have the ability to control options for the call from the web application. This includes muting and unmuting lines and managing recording. There's a bit of a delay between the time you hit the record button and the time you get confirmation that the recording has started. The recording is stored as a Flash file and is hosted on ReadyTalk's servers. Their playback application lets users directly jump to any slide from a thumbnail navigation bar and the audio stays nicely synched. It's fast direct access and the audio compression is very limited. In other words it sounds like the speakers, not a tinny recording of them. You can download your recording and receive an entire directory full of files for coordinated playback. It's easy to change the clearly labeled logo jpg files to brand it under your company instead of ReadyTalk.
Although ReadyTalk is a relatively small private company, they have some major industry partnerships that let them offer 24/7 technical support (they don't use an Indian outsourced support line!). During their office hours, you get a live person in their own offices, with easy access to the development engineers should that be necessary.
ReadyTalk is an interesting option for companies who want a simple interface, very flexible access from different computers, and especially for those who work with an international audience. The new release will add some easier management functionality, but the big seller is likely to be easy podcast creation from a webcast. Mike shared some long range plans for 2007 that also piqued my interest, but the time is not yet ripe for sharing those. I'll just say that it's worth keeping an eye on the company, since this October release is by no means the culmination of their development path.