I have been using omNovia web conferencing on a number of client projects lately and I suggested to the folks at Publicare that they give it a look on their test list of web conferencing products. Publicare published their mini-review of omNovia with a fairly low test score and highlighted several negatives.
I was interested, as I tend to look at products from a different perspective than they do and I have a technology preference list that would be substantially reordered from theirs. That's not a slam against their testing procedures or results. It's an acknowledgement that products can be suited for different purposes and the user's priorities will determine which comes out in the lead.
Publicare tends to concentrate on suitability for collaborative, participatory web meetings. I concentrate on more formally structured large web events that are primarily a "one to many" or "few to many" information dispersal mechanism for large audiences. My clients have different priorities for the software functionality and I'll use omNovia as an example to highlight some of the differences in focus. This should prove useful both as an examination of concepts and as a mini review of the product, since it is not well known in the industry.
By the way, I should state disclaimers up front. I am not a reseller of omNovia and I have no financial stake in their business, including advertising. I have worked alongside them as an independent service provider on a couple of client projects where they supplied the technology and I supplied the client support services. They also hired me as an outside consultant on a single project to perform an internal product review and test in order to point out areas for product enhancement. This gave me a chance to dig into all areas of product functionality in a much more comprehensive fashion than I might otherwise have been able to.
omNovia uses Adobe Flash technology as the underlying platform for operation. That means it is largely unaffected by choice of operating system or browser for each user. But users must have a fairly recent version of the Flash Player installed on their computer - release 9.0.28 or later. As Publicare points out, presenters who want to use screen sharing or session recording must be on a Windows operating system, as those functions use locally-installed EXE programs.
I am a big fan of Flash-based web conferencing for the instant access it allows when joining a session. Presenters and attendees use a web browser link to access the server-hosted Flash application and they are almost immediately in. There are no wait times for software programs to download and install.
Inside the meeting room, controls are simple and mostly intuitive. I have had great success working with guest presenters who don't have time for more than a quick familiarization run-through before a conference. They can easily find the forward and backward arrows that let them advance through their slides sequentially. There is no preview, thumbnail, or table of contents list for loaded slides, although you can jump directly to a slide by entering the slide number.
(Basic screen layout, reduced in size)
PowerPoint slides are uploaded to the meeting room (on the server) in advance of the meeting and go through a conversion step for use in the session. The upload and conversion speed is average for this kind of software approach... Give yourself ten minutes leeway for a large deck and you should be fine. You have a choice of picture quality to use during the conversion and I find that Medium is sufficient for all but the most demanding photographic images. Transition effects when moving from slide to slide are not shown to attendees (strangely enough, the presenter can still see them), but other PowerPoint animations are retained - both on-click and timed. Both .PPT and .PPTX files are allowed, but you can't upload Macintosh Keynote slide decks. My PowerPoint Torture Test passed with flying colors... All color gradients, complex animations, nonstandard fonts, and small text were reproduced faithfully. You can have multiple slide decks uploaded and waiting for use, with a simple mouse click selection process to choose the one to display to the audience.
There is a chat pane below the slide area and a participants list to the left of the slide area. You can change the relative size of the panes, including a single click icon to expand the slide display to full screen. But you cannot change the relative location of the panes. The moderator can select whether the chat panel is private or public - meaning whether audience members see comments from other participants or whether comments are seen only by presenters. Presenters can answer chat entries privately or publicly. Moderators can also set up another chat tab for presenters to use, where their comments are not seen by the audience (perfect for team support and private notes during a session). Presenters can also initiate private chats with any audience member, which open in their own named chat tabs. This is useful for managing an interactive troubleshooting session with an individual.
Presenters can annotate on top of slides with the usual assortment of boxes, circles, lines, text, or red dot "laser pointer." You can change colors and line widths at will. Individual annotations can be dragged to a new location on the screen or deleted. You can also delete all annotations.
(White board annotation examples and toolbar)
Presenters can also upload documents or web links that attendees can access during the session.
There are a few unusual features that deserve mention:
- Moderators can choose to display an alert message to all attendees that shows in a pop-up window, accompanied by your choice of highlight color and an optional audio alert. You can have the message disappear by itself after a set time, or remove it manually.
- Presenters can click an icon to display a world map showing the approximate location of all participants.
- My favorite is a countdown timer that can be displayed to all participants or to presenters only. I use the public one to note when a break time or local discussion session will end and I use the private mode to remind my speakers how long they have left for their presentation section.
omNovia does include audio streaming as an integrated feature, and is set up for VoIP operation where presenters and optionally attendees can plug in computer mikes or headsets to speak through the conference. This is controlled through Flash recognition of your local devices and I have run into setup and configuration headaches when trying to get everybody online and speaking. My preference is to use their optional iBridge feature. This lets me run a telephone audio conference where my presenters call in on their phones. The moderator then uses the conferencing software to dial in as another participant on the audio conference (you hear prompts through your computer speakers and enter any necessary codes using the computer keyboard to connect). From then on, all telephone audio is broadcast out to the audience on their computers. This gives participants the option to listen through their computer or over the telephone, which makes everybody happy. The iBridge integration is more convenient than using a hardware patch cable to connect a phone to your computer microphone input and it works with any third party audio conference you care to use.
(iBridge audioconference connection and countdown timer)
The software includes polling functionality of course, but this is somewhat limited in comparison to other implementations I have seen. Polls can have a maximum of five answer choices and you cannot ask a question with "Select all that apply" functionality. The presenter cannot close the poll window for all participants when it is time to move back to the slides... Each person must close it on his/her own machine.
You can show Flash movie clips to the audience by uploading them or by using a link reference to a URL. Movies are shown in their own tab and you cannot include videos that are embedded in PowerPoint slides.
One of Publicare's negatives concerned "transfer of presenter from one attendee to another." This is one of those areas where I didn't find the proper functional control on my first review. Participants tagged ahead of time as "presenters" all come in with their own ID and password and each has full control over the conference, with the ability to advance slides, show movies, review and answer attendee messages, etc. Attendees come in with lesser rights and capabilities. But a presenter can click on an attendee name in the participant list and grant him or her speaking rights via VoIP microphone or "Images Control" to let them advance slides, show a movie, or run application sharing. Another click and they are back to normal "view-only" attendee status. That seems like a reasonable transfer of power as needed.
One area where I think Publicare really missed some functionality is the one where I spend most of my time... Setting up formal events as a moderator. There are a lot of configuration controls and capabilities that the moderator has access to as a separate function outside the meeting room. Some of these are implemented particularly well and deserve mention.
You can schedule events in advance, with tremendous control over the event specifics. This includes an integrated registration system, where you can set up custom registration fields that include dropdown responses, checkboxes, radio buttons, and text entry. You can distribute links to the registration page with a custom parameter that may be used to track the registration link source (for instance, to monitor the effectiveness of various promotion channels). You get to control when attendees can start entering the room and can even place a limit on whether people can enter after the event has been going for a certain duration (maybe to prevent students from getting attendance credit by showing up for the last five minutes of a course?).
Registration can be open to the public or restricted to those in a pre-set list of email addresses (if you are holding a private group meeting for instance). Publicare missed a feature here, as passwords can be created for a single event, rather than being generic for a meeting room that gets reused.
Email customization is a strong point. When you create an event, omNovia creates a sample email invitation text with the registration details, but you have to copy it and send it through your own choice of email delivery system. omNovia does not want to be in the business of bulk mailings to the public, as this opens them for spamming abuse. But once people register, you can customize the registration and reminder messages that they get automatically from the system. In an unusual bit of flexibility, you can create both text and HTML versions of the automated emails and omNovia will attempt to send the HTML with the text as a backup. You can schedule up to two reminder messages to be automatically sent at specified times before your event. You also have the ability to create followup messages for all registrants, for attendees, or for no-shows. These are not sent out at a set time after your event... You need to go back into the software and click a button to send them out.
omNovia also recently integrated their system with Twitter so you can send a Tweet about your event ahead of time or you can send Tweets during your session.
Some unique setup features include the ability to configure a banner display click-through in your meeting room that can be used for advertising or to send people to your website. You can place a graphic on your registration page, and you can even show people a video after they register. You can also set up a link to a web page that gets shown when people exit the meeting session (I often use this to link to a SurveyMonkey survey to capture attendee feedback).
There is no direct integration of payment processing, but omNovia has a published API that allows a web programmer to take a payee from their shopping cart system and ship the data to omNovia to be entered as a registrant in the desired event. The registrant then gets all the appropriate confirmation and reminder messages from the omNovia system.
Attendance reporting covers the basics, with the ability to see who registered (and when), who attended, and custom fields. A separate room report has more details including IP adresses and time spent in the meeting by each attendee.
For me, the weakest aspect of omNovia at this time is its recording feature. As I mentioned earlier, recording is run as a local Windows application on a presenter's machine. There are quite a few setup and configuration choices that could be confusing for nontechnical specialists who don't know about things like frame rates and codecs. You do get the choice to record the entire screen or a selected rectangular region, but audio is picked up from your computer's sound card, with the potential setup confusion that entails. They also made a strange decision to always capture the cursor with a big fuzzy yellow glow around it. Since you can only record as a presenter, your recording captures private presenter-only displays. I would rather have it capture things as my attendees see them and use the broadcast audio straight off the server feed. To be honest, I usually end up using Camtasia to do the recording on a separate attending computer. [I added an important update on additional capabilities after writing this - please see bottom of article]
For my uses as a professional administrator and moderator of structured public webinars, omNovia has been very satisfactory. I like the setup configuration flexibility it gives me, my guest speakers have been very happy with the simplicity of operation inside the meeting, and attendees usually appreciate the fast access to events and choice of audio when integrated with the iBridge phone connection. I'd be happier with greater flexibility in polling and a serious reworking of the recording feature.
I can understand why it might not suit the needs of small group collaborative sessions quite as well as other software designed for that purpose. You can't promote attendees to presenter status and screen sharing is operating system dependent (as well as suffering in performance in comparison to the leaders in that functionality). I believe omNovia's strengths lie in setup of formal events with predetermined speakers, where registration and structure of the overall event is a priority. Its ability to work with complex PowerPoint animations, Flash movies, registrant communications, and unique features such as countdown timers and Twitter integration make it a contender for an enterprise platform where a dedicated administrator can learn how to drive all the configuration options.
UPDATE (July 3): I just tried out a new option for recording events in omNovia. Known as "Recast", it is currently in beta, although generally available to customers upon request. Recast records an event directly from the broadcast server as an audience member would see it and saves it directly to the omNovia server under your customer account. Upon playback, all interactive features of the event are available, exactly as if the viewer was watching the live session. They can answer polls, enter chat messages, etc. This would be valuable for companies who want to make viewers think they are watching something live while avoiding the time commitments of running multiple sessions. A free option during the beta, omNovia plans to charge for usage based on the number of people who watch the recorded recast. The downside of this recording option is that the event can only be run from the server... You can't download and distribute or re-host the movie file. You also can't edit it to clean up the recording... It faithfully captures everything that happened during the live meeting session and plays it back exactly as it occurred. That may be a good thing for legal discovery and formal archival, where you have to prove you haven't manipulated or edited your archive. If you can live with having your archive exactly as it played live, this takes care of my recording concerns... It doesn't show presenter-private information, it doesn't show unwanted cursor controls, and it does record the audio cleanly from the broadcast audio stream.