I still can't act as a presenter using the Meeting Web Access (MWA) console. Recent tests included uninstalling all antivirus software from my machine and running Live Meeting from the Administrator's account. Although Microsoft tech support is still examining the issue, I've pretty much given up on using the web console as a presenter, since it won't load a required ActiveX control. I have made it work on another machine, so there is a local conflict somewhere with my computer, but after spending about four hours of total time on the phone with four different Microsoft engineers, we are no closer to understanding what is happening or how to fix it. Suffice it to say that Microsoft doesn't recommend presenting from MWA anyway. You lose several pieces of functionality.
Bypassing that little diversion, let's install the full local client and see how the product really works. As mentioned here and elsewhere, the client install is alarmingly large for a hosted web conferencing solution. The download file is 15.8MB and running on my upgraded "turbo" speed cable modem, it took 3.5 minutes to copy down and another minute to install. That isn't a huge amount of time out of your day, but to a casual meeting attendee trying to join at the last minute, the perceived annoyance is greater than you might think. And Lord help those on slow Internet connections!
The install file is a Windows executable, so attendees on Macintosh, Solaris, or Unix/Linux have to join using MWA instead. In my first post on the subject, I mentioned that Unix and Linux are not officially supported. I also mentioned that I asked tech support what functionality is lost by attending via the Web console. It turns out I got an incomplete answer from them. They neglected to mention that MWA attendees can not see slide animations or transitions. They also see slides in lower resolution/clarity than with the Windows client. They can't upload files to the meeting space, can't reconfigure the display by docking command panes, can't use keyboard navigation short cuts, can't get localized text, can't use webcam or Microsoft Roundtable video, and can't use console-based audio commands such as muting. I searched all over the online documentation for this information and couldn't find it. I finally got a very helpful comparison chart from a Microsoft solution specialist, which let me quickly see the differences between the access methods.
I uploaded my standard PowerPoint torture test, which is only 14 slides, but is filled with big, detailed graphics, lots of fonts, and tricky animation. The upload and conversion process took 45 seconds, which strikes me as reasonable.
The basic display console is nicely uncluttered, using toolbars and a typical command bar with dropdown commands grouped under functional headings.
Most of the commands open a dedicated window or "pane" for working with the specified functionality. Microsoft did a great job on the interface for managing the customizable display. You can work with the pane where it appears under the command bar, you can drag it to any arbitrary location on your desktop to use as a floating window, or you can dock it on the left margin, right margin, or bottom of your console window. Everything scales and readjusts nicely. This is very slick indeed.
Slide display was perfect in my torture test. It properly rendered all animations, slide transitions, graphics, and nonstandard fonts. Microsoft has upgraded its conversion and display algorithms in Live Meeting 2007 and they are noticeably sharper on a good monitor running at high resolution.
I am a big fan of annotating slides to focus the audience's attention. This is an area where subtle choices in implementation can have a tremendous impact on usability. You'll find that all the major enterprise web conferencing vendors allow you to mark up a slide, but they each have different interfaces. I was terribly disappointed when Microsoft acquired Placeware and changed it to Live Meeting. The first thing they did was mess up Placeware's excellent annotation interface. I'm happy to report that Live Meeting 2007 fixes their previous errors and the annotation controls are better than the original.
You can easily choose colors for each object and hold down the shift key to force straight lines. Microsoft does away with little-used options such as filled containers and multi-colored highlighters. Writing text on a slide is much more flexible and useful now. You can choose a font and enter multi-line information without having to make a separate text object for each line. You can click on any object and move it to a new location on the slide or right-click on it for options such as copying or deleting it.
I can think of two things I would change, but these are minor annoyances. Placing an arrow, checkmark, or X on the slide is accomplished with a cursor shaped like a rubber stamp. There is no obvious focus point on the stamp, so you can't fine-tune exactly where your object will appear. You might be off by a few pixels from where you want it to show up. It would be nice if the cursor gave you a pixel placement reference. The other annoyance is that you can't resize an outline square, oval, or circle. If you get the dimensions wrong, you have to delete it and redraw it. Neither of these is a big deal, but they would make life a little easier for us hardcore doodlers.
Navigating through your slides is easy, with multiple ways to accomplish the task. You can display a thumbnail gallery of your slides and click on one to instantly display it. You can use up and down arrows in the margin of the console window. You can right-click on the slide in the main display window and choose the previous, next, or named slide from a list.
I was glad to see that Microsoft retained one of my favorite features, which is a way for attendees to give instantaneous feedback by changing a little color flag in their console window. You can assign arbitrary meanings to each color and as a presenter you can choose to open a view of the audience as a cluster of small colored squares. This is a remarkably intuitive way to sense the mood of the entire audience at a glance, and can help you know when you need to speed up, slow down, or speak louder for instance.
There is plenty more functionality -- I haven't even scratched the surface here. But in order to avoid turning this entry into a novel, I'll continue with other aspects of the software in a subsequent post.