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.