Adobe released a Service Pack last week that enhances its Acrobat Connect and Acrobat Connect Professional web conferencing software. Service packs are often reserved for applying critical bug fixes between formal product releases, and while Service Pack 3 includes some bug fixes, Adobe is touting the upgrade as a major functional improvement to Connect.
I got a demo and briefing from Peter Ryce, a "Connectionist" (aka Technical Evangelist) at Adobe. You can hear Peter give you a short recorded overview of the upgrade at this link. He explained that the upgrade affects several areas of operation in the Connect products.
The most important upgrade is the use of a new codec in the video handling portions of Connect. A codec is the software algorithm that compresses and reconstitutes the bit stream making up the video signal. Connect previously used the codec that came standard in Flash version 6 (Connect is completely Flash-based and uses the power of that software to drive both the presenter and audience side of the application). Adobe did some market penetration studies and concluded that Flash 8 or 9 is now installed on most computer systems (Peter mentioned a 95-96 adoption rate), so they felt comfortable in upgrading Connect to use the improved codec included in those versions of the software.
The new codec significantly reduces the amount of information flowing over the Internet when a presenter shows a video, HTML animation, or screen share from his or her desktop. The smaller bandwidth usage makes for a faster and smoother playback on the audience's computers. Peter says that in their testing they saw anywhere from three to six times improvements in transmission quality over the old release.
I asked about improvements to audio playback and Peter said that audio improvements would purely be a side effect of the smaller video bandwidth. They didn't change the audio streaming algorithms, but there is now more "room" for the audio data to move through the Web to participants' computers since the video takes up less "space." (I'm simplifying because this isn't a technical forum. Datacomm professionals are advised to take a stress pill.)
Adobe hired handl Consulting to run performance tests on the new Connect screen sharing versus WebEx, Live Meeting, GoToMeeting, and Yugma. You can view the report here. The summary conclusion was that Connect beat the combined average performance of those four in categories of Latency, Smoothness, Fidelity, Total Bandwidth Consumption, and Average Bandwidth Consumption. The report does not deliver head-to-head comparisons against any one of the competitors taken alone.
I had Peter show me a number of screen sharing scenarios. My personal take is that it is indeed an improvement and good enough for most common conferencing applications. But when I asked Peter to run my PowerPoint torture test in full screen slide show mode, I was able to spot obvious areas where the polling and transmission of large amounts of data couldn't keep up with the full slide redraws necessary to do smooth slide transitions.
The screen sharing feature that I found most disconcerting was the way Adobe chose to implement cursor display from the presenter's desktop. Instead of transmitting the image of the cursor (which requires constantly erasing and redrawing not only the cursor, but the information under it), Connect transmits only the location coordinates of the cursor. It is physically drawn on each audience member's screen as a local image. This is very efficient, but has inevitable drawbacks. If you change your desktop cursor (for instance, using an extra large cursor for better visibility) the audience doesn't see it that way. If you are demonstrating a software application that changes the cursor as a visual indicator, your audience won't see it. And if you show a web page, your audience won't see cursor changes such as an hourglass or hand symbol, which are important indicators in browser operations.
The locally drawn cursor also annoyed me, as it has a "cute" little icon attached to it that indicates you are viewing the presenter's cursor rather than your own. The icon is distracting and covers up more space than it needs to. I suggested that Adobe offer an option to see a "normal" cursor in this mode. Heck, it's just a locally loaded symbol... they could make an entire gallery of cursors available at the viewer's preference!
The remaining improvements included in the Service Pack are:
- Support for additional languages. Users can see all onscreen menus, commands, messages, help, and documentation in languages such as Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish.
- Support for native Intel chipsets on Macintosh computers. Mac users no longer have to configure their settings to use the Rosetta emulation mode. A single universal code base runs Connect on both PowerPC and Intel machines.
- Support for integrated telephone user management from the web console for enterprises using Avaya or Cisco MeetingPlace switches. This complements the existing phone management through Premiere Global audio conferencing.
- Creation of a new Connect user group forum for sharing information in an online community format.
That's a nice collection of improvements for an interim Service Pack. My respect for the Connect platform continues to grow. If this is what they do between release numbers, I can't wait for the next formal release!
By the way, you can see the Acrobat Connect platform in action this Thursday, September 20, when I use it to deliver a free webinar on how to make your webinars more effective.