BizConference invited me to try out their web meeting software (also called BizConference). The software comes in a variety of price/feature options, starting with BizConference Lite for collaborative workgroup meetings of 10 people or less. There are Regular and Pro options, which add more features and higher room capacities. And for one-to-many webinars, you can choose BizConference Premium, which allows you to haveup to 100 attendees in a session.
The company's website has nice comparison charts for features and pricing. The pricing is very low for the functionality offered. BizConference Lite starts at $20/month for unlimited meetings and even the Premium version for 100-person webinars is only $2,400 per year forunlimited meetings. (By the way, sharp-eyed readers will note that their website alternates between "Lite" and "Light" for the low-end product name. I decided to save myself the extra keystroke.)
The greatest advantage of BizConference is ease of access and cross platform compatibility. The software runs within a web browser using Flash as the underlying technology platform. Attendees can get into a session without running any executables on their computer and without having to authorize Active/X controls in their browser. That removes a barrier to attendance, which is always a good thing.
Presenters do have a download to install a client-side interface for managing their meeting rooms and presentations. The presenter interface is supported on Windows operating systems and attendees can be on Windows or Mac computers. I didn't see any notes about formal support for Unix/Linux platforms.
BizConference is nicely positioned for international use. One of the menu settings lets you choose between Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese. All menu commands are translated into the selected language.
Some browser/Flash conferencing software eliminates functionality like screen sharing, chat, or polling because it is much harder to implement full two-way interactivity between attendees and hosts without client software running on the attendee's machine to manage their end of the conversation. BizConference Premium gives you the full package, with all of those capabilities intact.
BizConference takes an unusual and useful approach to managing your meeting space. You can create a set of meeting rooms, each having its own look and feel. A meeting room is effectively a subdirectory in a URL hierarchy that can contain one or more meetings.
As an administrator, you have tremendous flexibility in setting up the cosmetics of what your attendees will see. You can upload your logo or other image for a static banner, you can change colors and fonts for meeting room greeting text, you can add an image as a background picture behind your meeting room content, and you can even upload an MP3 file to play music while attendees wait for your meeting to begin. You also choose whether attendees can see each others' names and send messages to other attendees(Useful in workgroups or community-building exercises... Great to turn off in formal webinars). There is also an option to redirect attendees to your choice of URL addresses when a meeting ends, although I hit a bug when I tried to use this function.
Each meeting room has its own registration page associated with it. The ability to create differently themed meeting rooms with their own registration pages and interface designs means that you can use a single BizConference license to support conferencing activity for different business divisions or units, product groups, affinity groups, and so on. Each room reflects the identity of the group that uses it. I have had clients ask for exactly this functionality and usually you have to pay the vendor for additionallicenses, each maintained separately.
You can set up templates to hold standardized settings for your meeting rooms and registration pages so that you can apply different looks to different meetings. The system also generates HTML code snippets that you can copy into your web page source to let people enter directly into a meeting room with a mouse click.
Scheduling meetings gives you the expected set of functionality. You can create an Outlook calendar reminder, associate a telephone number or VOIP service provider with the meeting, and configure your security requirements for attendance (whether registration is required and whether attendees need to supply a user name and password). In another piece of interesting functionality, you can have the system generate a unique login URL for each registrant so that they don't have to enter any information to attend,yet the system knows who they are. That's a nice feature that other vendors should pay attention to.
PowerPoint presentations require conversion for use in BizConference. Importing a presentation opens PowerPoint on your computer and saves each slide as a JPG file using PowerPoint's export facility. The image files are then uploaded to your meeting web space and treated as sequentially ordered presentation slides. I ran into another bug when doing the export. The system didn't shut down my PowerPoint application when it finished exporting the slides and it was not apparent whether the conversion process wasdone or not.
Presentation slides are stored within a meeting room and any meeting that takes place in that room can choose which presentation to share with the audience. Obviously, since slides are converted to image files, there is no support for slide transition effects or for PowerPoint animations.
Running through a deck of slides in a meeting uncovered some schizophrenic behavior in the BizConference interface. The presenter can concentrate on the meeting viewer page itself, where they see the full content. At the top of the page, there are forward and backward arrows for moving one slide at a time in sequence. I found that there were numerous times when the system didn't recognize an arrow click and I had to repeat the action to get the slide to move. There is also a drop-down menu to move directly toa slide, but it only shows the slide numbers... So you'd better have a good reference list for choosing the right number!
Separate from the meeting page is a "My Meeting Room" browser window. You can see more information about your presentation slides by using this panel instead of the controls in the meeting viewer. You can display your slides as tiny thumbnails (not resizable) or as a list of titles taken from PowerPoint (the titles must have been placed in the proper title spot in your PowerPoint layout template). Double-clicking on a slide image jumps the viewer directly to that slide. Strangely, the forward and backward arrowsin this control window don't behave like the ones in the meeting viewer window. They highlight the previous or next slide in the presenter's display, but they don't change the slide for your audience. I couldn't see any sense in this implementation.
BizConference allows limited audience polling. All polls are set up as multiple choice questions. You may only create a maximum of five answer choices for each question. There is no option to let your audience choose more than one answer (for "Choose all that apply" kinds of questions). You have an option to designate one of the five choices as the "correct" answer, but I'm not sure why you would bother. The only effect this has on the operation is that when you display results of the poll to the audience, theysee the word "correct" in parentheses next to the appropriate answer. You could just as easily tell them which answer was right by voice. Unfortunately there is no option to display results as percentages only... It always shows the absolute number of votes. So if you have a low turnout for your public event, everybody knows it. One other strange implementation on polling is that the poll results display in a popup window on the audiences' screens. They have to manually close the display window themselves. Iprefer not to rely on my audience to operate anything in their display in order to stay current with my presentation.
Presenters can annotate slides with an easy to use set of markup tools. You can set colors and fill options for circles and rectangles, which are retained until they are changed. There is a line tool that lets you draw a perfectly straight horizontal or vertical line by holding down the shift key while drawing (extremely useful for underlining text). You can place a pointer arrow on the screen, which is a little big and blocky for my tastes, but at least it properly points to the right so that you don't coverup text when you want to highlight a bullet. The point of the arrow doesn't quite match with the point of your cursor, so figuring out how to place it for fine alignment is a learning exercise.
Each annotation can be dragged to a new location on the screen or can be erased separately from other annotations. You can also erase all annotations at once (which requires a confirmation). You can drag your annotation toolbar around the screen to make sure it is in a convenient place relative to your content. Annotations are also available on a blank slide acting as a whiteboard.
My biggest complaint about the annotation implementation is that every new annotation displays the name of the person who placed it on the screen. The name overlays and hides any content it rests above. This may be useful in workgroup collaborative sessions, but it is distracting and redundant in a formal webinar, where the audience knows who is presenting the information they are seeing.
BizConference offers screen sharing, where the audience can see the presenter's desktop. The presenter can either show his entire desktop or define a rectangular area that bounds the shared content. The interface is easy to use and it is simple to resize the share frame and to stop and start sharing. There are many options for configuring image quality, refresh rate, attendee viewing size, and screen resolution. Unfortunately, you are always going through standard HTML web server communications, and there aremany opportunities for lags in the display. I found that my attendee screen could show jerky movements when I moved the cursor in long flowing movements or when I scrolled long list displays. There was one other major problem with screen sharing that surprised me. If I used an application with pop-up "tool tips" help text associated with commands and buttons, the attendees did not see the pop-up text.
My favorite feature in the screen sharing implementation is that at any time the presenter can use the annotation tools to mark up the live content being displayed. This acts like a telestrator, freezing the display and letting the presenter write on it. I felt like John Madden describing a football play. The presenter decides when to erase the annotations and get back to "live action." This is a wonderful andrare tool for use in things like software demonstrations, when you want to focus the audience's attention on a feature or result.
BizConference must have recognized the inherent drawbacks in HTML screen sharing, because they give you one other option for showing off information on your desktop. You can select the entire desktop or a named application and click a button to send a snapshot of the content to your audience. It opens as another browser window and they can see the static image.
HTML delays reared their ugly head in a few other places. For instance, when I used the option to send a file from my PC to the audience, there was a long delay before the File Selection dialog box was displayed. I wasn't sure that the software had recognized my request.
From the attendee side of things, the interface is very simple and easy to use, as well as being fast to access, with no software setup needed. Audience members have a text chat window where they can address comments to the presenter(s). Presenters can address text chat to a single individual or the entire audience, but they can't publicly redisplay a private message that has come in to them from an audience member.
I found one problem in the audience entry controls. If you configure a meeting to ask for the attendee's email address to match it to an approved registration list, the attendee has no way of canceling the operation. If they get the address wrong or if they haven't preregistered, the system traps them on the login window, continuously asking for a valid email address.
I found that as an account administrator and presenter, there was a definite learning curve associated with the product's features. Understanding the meeting room/meeting space distinction is not intuitive at first and there are a number of configuration options and steps to go through to set up a meeting room. The multiple window approach to the presentation interface sometimes stumped me for a moment when a window would disappear behind another one, or I didn't know where to look for a desired function. Overtime, I became more comfortable with the operation of the system.
BizConference is tantalizingly close to what the market needs in web conferencing support. It is very low cost, but supports a full range of functionality. It is extremely easy and fast for audience members to access from both Windows and Macintosh computers. It allows companies to configure the viewing environments for different needs and uses. I love being able to annotate a screen sharing session.
There are still some things for the company to work out, however. I would like polling to be more flexible and appropriate for marketing-type webinars. Performance needs to improve for screen sharing and other functions that access the web server. And there is room for growth on the number of formally supported platforms so that companies can hit the Unix/Linux market and present from non-Windows machines. Improved performance should also give it the ability to handle larger audience sizes, which is importantfor public events. I think the overall presenter interface could be standardized and simplified for a shorter learning curve. And some presenters are going to insist upon support for their PowerPoint animations and slide transitions, which will limit adoption of the software.
In the meantime, you can't argue with the value for money that BizConference gives you. As with every web collaboration package, you need to see whether your priorities and requirements are served by the tradeoffs the designers have made. For many businesses, BizConference will be a serious contender.
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