I use Brainshark to create and host recorded presentations on the Webinar Success website. I also create on-demand presentations for clients using Brainshark to build on-demand presentations that can be accessed around the clock for lead generation, brand awareness, and training. That means I'm always happy to see new releases and enhancements to the product's functionality. And their new version 16.2 is no exception.
There are a number of things that make life easier for administrators and corporate organizers, but those are only important and understandable to existing customers, so I'm not going to get into them in this article.
Brainshark already supported 10 languages for commands and pop-up text in the viewer application that lets people see your content. They just added 6 more, including Danish, Indonesian, Malay, Norwegian, and both Brazil and Portugal versions of Portuguese.
It is now easier to get the URL information you need to let people link directly to your presentation, controlling the way they are allowed to interact with the recording. You can also get the complete HTML code you need to embed the presentation window directly into a web page, eliminating the step of having to link to another site.
Companies using Brainshark to create courses and curricula can choose to auto-login students and send them directly to a particular course, which can reduce support calls for forgotten passwords and the like.
The two areas of new functionality that are the most significant for my needs as an author deal with sound and animation. Brainshark now lets you add background soundtracks to your presentation. As with any such rich media, this is ripe for abuse by overenthusiastic authors. But in certain circumstances, background audio can add a professional and engaging aspect to a recording. The new implementation makes sure that the background audio keeps playing smoothly even during slide transitions, where there may be a break in your narration. There are also controls to allow you to choose whether to play the background track once or on a continuous loop. Companies can control whether authors are allowed to pick their own music tracks or are required to select from company approved tracks already loaded into their library.
Brainshark has also boosted their support for PowerPoint animations, now accepting and playing back timed animations that are triggered to fire with or after another animation effect. In previous releases, you had to make each animation a manually-triggered event and then specify the timing after uploading the content. The new release will be much more convenient for content authors who use PowerPoint animations in their presentations.
In addition to features in the base product, Brainshark has built upon their Brainshark Content Network with the ability for clients to create privately branded portal pages that give access to their Brainshark recordings. This is a nice way to collect lots of presentations into groups, with the ability for viewers to rate individual presentations and leave feedback for others. It also takes the burden off website coders, since they no longer have to add new links every time someone in the organization creates a new recording.
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.
Warning: This is one of my few posts NOT related to web conferencing. You can safely stop here if you don't want to waste your time, and I'll be back on topic shortly.
There's a game floating around the blogosphere these days called "What's On Page 123?" If you are part of the cognoscenti, you might refer to it as a meme (a word I personally hate, but as a proponent of "webinar," I'm not in a position to throw stones).
The deal is that a blogger gets called upon ("tagged") by another blogger. You have to write about the book you are currently reading, citing the 6th through 8th sentences on page 123. Cece Salomon-Lee tagged me in a post on her "PR Meets Marketing" blog, so I am bound by the law of the jungle to join in and keep the cycle going.
[Aside. In doing a bit of research, I found that some versions of the game say to pick up the book nearest to you and quote from that. The book nearest to me right now is "The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary", which has a page 123, but no sentences!]
I just came back from a short vacation cruise, where I had the time to disconnect from all work and relax with some mindless fiction paperbacks. My novels of choice on the cruise were war thrillers. I read a submarine warfare novel and an espionage cat and mouse book. I left both on the ship for others to enjoy, and I can't even remember the titles. I picked them up at a tent sale of "Books By The Pound" or some such.
Given that lofty literary disclosure, I'd better go back a bit to a real business book that might benefit someone. I recently read "Smart Enough Systems" by James Taylor (no, not that James Taylor) along with Neil Raden. I worked with James back at Fair Isaac Corporation (and several other company names in a mad shuffle of Silicon Valley acquisitions and brand changes).
We were in charge of product marketing for software to help companies automate and improve the decisions that drive everyday operations. Analyze your data, create segmentations, build predictive models, and implement business rules to carry out the right actions at the right time. James and Neil put it all together in a book that lays out the components and their practical applications in many different business situations.
Page 123, sentences 6-8 are not the most vibrant and engaging in the book:
Problems have arisen, however, in processes customized for major customers. Managing all these different processes is complex, even though almost everything in a process is the same. SmartEnough also found that the benefits, which were published in a major IT magazine, wore off quickly after major inefficiencies were eliminated, because there were still too many manual referrals and too much waiting for decisions.
At least these sentences illustrate the use of real-world case studies sprinkled throughout the book.
I suppose since I mentioned James and he has a blog, it is only logical to tag him as the next victim on this list. I'm also tagging Sue Pelletier, just because I enjoy reading her Face2Face blog on the world of meeting management and organization.
On Monday, iLinc Communications announced that they had sold the majority of their audio conferencing assets to Premiere Global Services for $4.1 million. The press release also said that the company had implemented an overhead reduction program. I wanted to find out more, so I contacted the CEO, Dr. James Powers, Jr.
It's no secret that iLinc's stock price performance has been disappointing over the last year. They are currently trading around the $0.25 level, on a steady decline since last October. Dr. Powers said that while the company has to take responsibility for their performance, you have to attribute about half of the stock price woes to the general market conditions, especially for small-cap stocks during that period.
He told me that iLinc looked at what it could do to improve margins overall and came up with a coordinated set of strategic decisions. The first was to concentrate their sales efforts on hosted licensing for their web conferencing service. Often referred to as SaaS (for "Software as a Service"), this lets companies use the software's functionality without installing anything on their own computers and servers. They pay ongoing usage fees for the right to hold meetings.
iLinc had previously sold a lot of traditional software-as-a-purchase licenses. This gives the purchasing company ownership of the software for a single up-front fee. iLinc could recognize all the revenue at the time of sale, but then only made additional revenue from support and maintenance contracts. Dr. Powers pointed out that organizations have become used to thinking of web conferencing as a SaaS offering, since WebEx, Live Meeting, GoToWebinar, and other heavily marketed products in this space have built that up as the usage model of choice. Unfortunately, the change in emphasis from purchase licenses to SaaS licensing always causes a drop in short-term revenues on the books, as the company can't recognize a big ticket sale price up front.
The second strategic decision was to divest their audio business. There is a lot of overhead involved in operating, maintaining, and upgrading audio bridge software and hardware. Price competition on audio conferencing is fierce, and customers wanted more features, such as increased VoIP (internet streamed audio) and international access numbers. By selling the audio business now, the company gets an infusion of cash during the transition to the SaaS sales focus to compensate for lower cash income. It also lets iLinc eliminate positions related solely to the audio side of things, such as event operators and bridge technicians. There is still a small percentage of audio operations maintained in-house for full-service audio event assistance, but that will probably end up on the block as well, helping to eliminate additional positions and support needs.
The third strategic decision involved an increased emphasis on sales through channel partners, both domestically and overseas. iLinc has significantly ramped up the number of people in the organization devoted to extending and supporting channel sales. The company's internal direct sales efforts will be focused on their sweet spot strengths in areas such as higher education and governmental organizations. Don't expect to see a lot of broad horizontal advertising and marketing coming out in the near future.
Finally, I asked Dr. Powers about the possibilities of iLinc as an acquisition target. I have written before that iLinc seems to be an obvious choice as one of the bigger names in the remaining (and dwindling) field of pure-play independent web conferencing providers. He agreed with me that it certainly seems like a logical target. There are plenty of big companies interested in getting a piece of the Unified Communications pie, as that buzzword remains the darling of the high tech set. They could use an established, mature web conferencing technology as a part of their offerings. He said, "I know that it's likely that someone will come knocking pretty soon... I'm not trying to hurry that process though."
We'll just have to wait out developments and see if Dr. Powers can get things back on an upward trend. For now, they have eliminated some of their low margin operations and overheads, they have a cushion of cash in the bank, and they have a sales strategy for more consistent revenue growth. Bookings and new business appear to be strong, according to Dr. Powers. Now it's all about execution and the whims of the market.
ON24 published a press release today that was focused on management changes in their sales organization. Fair enough... Congratulations and best of luck to the new guys heading up North America and EMEA.
What was more interesting to me was their statement that their worldwide delivery of streaming audio and video webcasts grew by 40% last year, hitting 16,000 total for 2007.
With the recent spate of consolidations and acquisitions of web conferencing providers by big multi-business companies it is getting harder and harder to get a handle on the health and state of this technology segment. Try to find raw data on the growth in web conferences and webcasts as a business when reading an annual report from Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft, or IBM. Fuggedaboutit.
I'm happy with a 40% increase from a dedicated provider. Thanks for the info, ON24... And keep up the good work!
The support team at PresenterNet quietly sent out email notifications this week that their technology has been upgraded to allow additional functionality for users.
The big enhancement is that PresenterNet now supports animation effects on PowerPoint slides. Many business presenters use (and abuse) animations to spice up their slides. Support for animations seems to be particularly desirable to marketers.
I tested the new functionality with my standard PowerPoint Torture Test. This combines outrageous amounts of text, graphics, and fancy animations in an attempt to run conversion software through a worst case scenario. PresenterNet uses an interesting approach to uploading and storing your presentations in your conference room. You start with a self-service upload step that transfers your PowerPoint file to their server. Then PresenterNet staff manually run the conversion process that turns slides into the Flash files that are used inside a conference. The company says that conversion staff are on duty from 6am to 6pm California time and they advertise a turnaround time of less than two hours. My slides were complex, but there are only 15 of them and my conversion was completed and ready for use in about ten minutes.
I was pleased that graphics and text all came out with high quality. Edges were sharp, colors were accurate, and there was no color banding on smooth gradients and fills. Images were placed exactly where they had been on the original slide, with no pixel offsets that plague some conversion algorithms. Advancing to the next animation on a slide is simply a matter of clicking your mouse anywhere within the slide area. I like that I don't have to concentrate on clicking a specific screen button that could pull my focus from the content as I'm presenting.
I managed to find three misconversion artifacts. A very minor one was that a movement animation that starts automatically as soon as the slide is displayed in the PowerPoint slideshow required a click to start it in PresenterNet. Hardly worth mentioning, and not something likely to give anybody a problem. Another minor discrepancy showed up in a fancy point-to-point movement animation, where the object briefly redisplayed at the starting position after the movement. A more obvious problem was that some "callout boxes" displayed improperly after being animated, ending up with lines running through the text. Other than those little items, all other PowerPoint features showed off very well, and I would have no hesitation in showing off my PowerPoint content with this software.
The second enhancement is more of a convenience issue than major new functionality. Sometimes you need to convene a conference quickly and you might not have time to wait for PresenterNet to convert your slides. They have a workaround you can use for immediate access to your slides. If you use your PC to convert your slides to PDF format, you can upload the PDF and display the slides without any further conversion.
The drawbacks to displaying PDF uploads are:
I spoke to PresenterNet CEO Doug Wolfgram, who shared two other points with me. The first is that the PresenterNet support staff will work with customers on special PowerPoint display requirements to do hand-tweaking of the content in order to make it display as desired in a conference... Just in case the automatic conversion doesn't give you what you want. The second item is the fact that the company now uses the Wowza Media Server, which he says gives meetings better performance as well as more flexible access for participants trying to watch from behind a firewall.
These recent enhancements should make PresenterNet more attractive and appropriate to a wider range of users and conferencing applications. I'm sure the extra investment by the company will pay off for them.
Adobe just announced a new release of Acrobat Connect Professional that is supposed to be available by the end of the month. I got a briefing and demo of the software, but I have not had a chance to play with it firsthand yet.
Connect Pro 7 takes care of two drawbacks that have inconvenienced me for some time. Meeting participants can now provide feedback to the presenter without seeing the names of other participants in the meeting room. Previous versions coupled the feedback feature to the Attendees pod, so that you had to use up valuable screen real estate and potentially raise privacy concerns if you wanted to collect audience feedback such as “Speed Up” or “Speak Louder.” It also gave away the fact that you might not have many attendees in the audience at times when you would rather keep that a secret.
The feedback feature has a fixed set of responses that are not customizable. These include standard things such as “Agree” and “Disagree”, but they also threw in some choices that seem a little too cute for typical business use, such as “Laughter” and “Applause.” If I’m running an investor relations call, I don’t think I want financial analysts to see a little smiley face and the word “Laughter” in their console.
The other major enhancement is the ability to download meeting recordings to your hard disk in Flash FLV format. These can be hosted on your own website or distributed on CD. Previous versions of the software required all recordings to be hosted on the Adobe servers and they could not be downloaded for distribution.
Adobe also embedded a very basic recording editor that allows you to cut out sections of your recording. You might want to get rid of the technical introduction and overview you gave your live audience, or instructions and pauses while waiting for them to complete polls or quizzes. The granularity is to the nearest complete second and the editor is certainly not as sophisticated as third-party dedicated software for audio/video editing, but it’s free and will suffice for many basic excisions.
Behind the scenes, Adobe made a huge advance in customization and configuration options for administrators. You can now choose what meeting features and functions are available for use by meeting hosts throughout your organization, and you can also set certain options to be automatically enabled or disabled for all meetings. So you might set all meetings to be automatically recorded, or you might disable the ability for any meeting host to share files or active links to websites. This is part of a general emphasis on compliance for organizations that have to adhere to governmental or industry regulations. You can even set your own Accept/Decline disclaimer for all meeting attendees before they are allowed to join a conference. Administrators can also create limited administration roles for subordinates to take over some of the functions necessary to creating or managing meetings.
All that is good for general web conferencing use, especially in large enterprise deployments (Adobe’s clear target audience for this product). But the bigger takeaway impression for me was the obvious concentration Adobe is making on the use of Connect Pro for training and eLearning applications. The title card in the PowerPoint briefing I saw said “Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro: High-Impact Rapid eLearning & Virtual Classrooms.” Adobe found that the bulk of their customer use was for training functions, and they spent a lot of time enhancing this aspect of the product.
Meeting organizers can now prepare any number of breakout rooms and either assign attendees to the sub-rooms manually or have the product distribute them evenly. Attendees get presenter rights in the breakout rooms so they can collaborate on whiteboards, file sharing, and the like. If you are working with a preferred Adobe partner for audio conferencing (such as MeetingOne), the product will automatically subdivide the audio conference into the same breakout groups as the web.
Adobe Presenter is a separate product license, but is closely tied in with use of Connect Pro, especially for curriculum development. It has also received enhancements to formal testing and scoring functions. The product can randomly reorder questions in a quiz and reorder multiple choice options within a question to reduce the chances of students copying each others’ work. There is more feedback to students as they take tests, more configuration options for the appearance of text and buttons, and the ability to publish and run tests on mobile devices or in interactive PDF files.
Presenter and Connect Pro also integrate with several Learning Management System (LMS) products from other suppliers including SAP, SumTotal, Blackboard, and Plateau.
Another new area of external integration is in the realm of instant messaging and presence. Connect Pro can interface with major premise-installed instant messaging systems such as Microsoft Office Communicator. You can import “buddy lists” from your instant messaging account, see if those people are online and available, and chat back and forth from your meeting room to their IM screen. You can also send them an “instant join” link that lets them quickly come into your meeting room, bypassing all login requirements.
Working with video is also easier in the new release, with the ability to accept and configure streaming video inputs from any camera device connected to your computer and the ability to import and display prerecorded video clips in Flash, WMV, or Quicktime formats.
I was informed that Adobe plans a major marketing push in conjunction with the new release to raise awareness and adoption of the conferencing software. I’m interested in how this will affect the competitive positioning of Connect Pro. It is has typically played against the major general use enterprise conferencing products such as Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting. The increased emphasis on eLearning should now put them into direct competition with training-focused solutions such as Saba Centra and Elluminate.
Customers using the SaaS Adobe-hosted version of Connect Pro will find themselves upgraded automatically at no additional charge. Customers who install Connect Pro on their own servers will receive upgrade discs as part of their standard support and maintenance packages and can do the upgrade installation on their own schedule.
I’m a big fan of Connect Pro for the flexibility it gives me as a meeting host and administrator and the ease of access it gives presenters and attendees from just about any operating system and browser. It has lots of functionality and this release takes away a few restrictions that I had been working around. The biggest remaining drawback for me is Adobe’s separately-priced event management option and its limited functionality. I prefer to add on a third-party event manager such as AMP from Corvent to take care of registration, login, audience communications, and reporting. But other than that one area, Connect Pro is a solid solution for large-scale meetings and should be on your short-short list for consideration when choosing a conferencing product.