Every so often I get a call or an email from someone saying that they want to hold a very basic web conference, but that cost is their number one concern. They don't want to spend a lot of time on setup and training and they want an easy way for attendees to join, without downloads and software installation. Those callers have a fascinating option with Cool Conference Live. The CEO of the company, Don Straits, gave me a demo and spoke about goals of the product.
Cool Conference Live is not trying to compete with enterprise-class web event software like WebEx, Microsoft Live Meeting, or Adobe Connect Professional. It is better suited for collaborative web conferences with a more participatory and social audience component. Several features are aimed squarely at letting audience members share a sense of community in their conference. For instance, each audience member can choose to upload an image and hyperlink associated with their name in the attendee list.
Several low-cost conferencing solutions rely on screen sharing to display content from the presenter's computer to the attendees. This has the potential for drawbacks, as screen refreshes may not be speedy or smooth enough to provide a quality viewing experience, and the presenter has to be careful not to accidentally show information s/he didn't intend the audience to see (such as the dreaded inappropriate IM message suddenly popping up in the middle of your presentation!).
Cool Conference Live (let's call it CCL for brevity's sake) doesn't have a screen sharing component, so you won't want to use it for live demos. Instead, you upload PowerPoint slides to your conference room, where they stay available for use in your meeting. The conversion process discards slide transition effects and PowerPoint animations. But the still images are converted to a vector format that lets each attendee scale the slide content to any desired size. This is a great convenience for people on different monitor sizes and resolutions. Unfortunately my PowerPoint Torture Test found several misconversions in the uploaded slides... Color gradients came out wrong and some slide titles ran off the edge of the slide. A couple of components that had animation in the source file disappeared entirely from the converted slide.
CCL runs in a browser window for both presenters and attendees. There are no downloads or installs and joining a session is very fast.
Functionality is very basic and tasks are accessed through tabs to the left of the slide display area. Attendees can type in chat messages for the moderator or for public display. Moderators can ask a public polling question, but it is automatically limited to answers of Yes, No, Undecided. Don told me that additional polling functionality is scheduled for the very near future. Moderators (and optionally, attendees) can upload files to the conference room server and all attendees can access them as if they were on a network disk. In other words, attendees must have the viewing software loaded on their machines. Surprisingly, moderators also have the ability to upload MP3 files, which attendees can play from inside the conferencing console.
Don said that simplicity won out over feature-creep in their design criteria. So you won't find things like slide annotations or white boards in the product. There is also no pre-registration for a meeting or access security beyond having the correct meeting link. The software is also designed for a single presenter operating things like advancing the slides. You can't pass control between multiple presenters.
There is one powerful feature that particularly appealed to me. A meeting secretary can type notes into a window to the left of the slides during the course of the conference. Clicking a button copies the notes into a WYSIWYG editing window so that they can be formatted and "prettied up". Then another button click lets you send the notes to an email address of your choosing or to all meeting attendees. This is a great way to quickly take care of minutes or records of agreements between attendees.
When you sign up for an account, you automatically get a reservationless teleconference number you can use for your meetings. All attendees call in to a toll number. They are responsible for toll charges and there is no cost to you as the account holder.
And now for the important part... The cost. CCL uses the flat-rate concept, where you can have an unlimited number of meetings and an unlimited number of people in a meeting. The cost comes in at a rather affordable price of $0.00. Yes, all usage is complimentary and is supported by a Google search bar and Google ads displayed in a banner above the slide content. If you prefer to get rid of the advertising, you can elect to pay $300/year for a clean site without banners.
Don explained that he is hoping the site will be used by people who might otherwise never take a chance on web conferencing. Everything from neighborhood Girl Scout planning meetings to family meetings with the out of state grandparents. There's no barrier to entry and no reason why they shouldn't try it to see how well the functionality meets their needs.
I should mention that the software is still officially in beta. The company has not yet performed scalability testing to see how performance will be impacted by extremely large meeting sizes or large numbers of simultaneous meetings by different clients.