People often ask me if there is a difference between web conferencing, webcasting, and webinars. In common usage among the press and public, the answer is probably no, but those of us in the business take a more specialized view. Web conferencing (when not used as a generic umbrella term) involves peer-to-peer collaboration, with all participants taking an active role in the meeting. Webinars establish a leader or leaders doing most of the presenting, but still with the expectation of interactivity and input from the participants. And webcasting reduces interactivity even further, with the primary purpose being to impart information from one or more presenters to a large audience watching and listening to the presentation online.
Typical audience sizes differ as well. Web conferences may have 2-15 participants. Webinars most often cluster somewhere around the 50-200 participant range. And webcasts may reach many thousands of viewers.
(Can I just head off the inevitable flame wars and stipulate that there are plenty of exceptions, plenty of overlap, and plenty of alternate definitions to these differentiators?)
IVT is a company firmly targeting the high end, large event webcasting market. Their IVT MediaPlatform product is an interesting concept, differing from the types of webinar-related software I usually cover. I thought it would be informative to look at some of the choices IVT has made with this offering.
First and foremost, MediaPlatform is not designed to be an off-the-shelf end user webinar tool in the mold of Microsoft Live Meeting, Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToWebinar, or Adobe Connect Pro. It isn’t even meant to compete with ready-to-use webcasting packages such as Stream57, ON24, or Netbriefings. IVT sells MediaPlatform to the very largest enterprises with dedicated media production departments, but makes even more sales to event production companies… The types of businesses that traditionally arrange audio and video setups for large client events. IVT’s goal is to give these service providers a tool in their arsenal that can be customized and configured for the unique needs of each client and each event.
The guts of the software are familiar. It allows internet broadcast of live video (from a webcam or high-end video feed), audio (fed into a computer’s digital inputs), prerecorded audio/video clips, and live screen sharing taken from a video capture card on a PC and encoded to Flash.
Obviously IVT provides starting templates and standard setups to let their customers get going without facing a massive up front programming challenge. Standardized templates let administrators use a form-based wizard to replace simple parameters and content items for quick provisioning of an event. But if a user has a specialized need, it can probably be accommodated.
Event administrators can adjust settings all the way down to video frame rates and audio bitrates for each presenter’s content stream. That’s more control than you’ll find in most webcasting packages.
A webcast can be set up to broadcast using Flash, Windows Media Player, or RealPlayer. You can even choose to webcast a combination of stream formats and let audience members choose their favorite. IVT does favor Flash for the extra capabilities it gives them in swapping between presenter views (the event administrator acts like a video director, switching cameras and audio inputs at whim).
The idea of a pure webcast is that the most important goal is to let large audiences see and hear the content cleanly. To this end, MediaPlatform assembles the audio and video into an internally synchronized stream and sends it out without worrying too much about real-time synchronization. A viewer may see and hear things many seconds after the presenter has said it. So unlike the average webinar, you don’t want to rely too much on instant feedback from your audience. When you introduce an audience poll in MediaPlatform, their best practices say that the presenter should keep talking on his or her subject while the poll stays visible in a corner of the console. After some time has gone by and you feel that the audience has had enough time to hear the instructions, think about the poll and respond, you can refer to results. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to issue a request for typed-in chat feedback and then sit quietly waiting for responses. There could be a significant delay before you started seeing results. And it’s a bad idea to have audience members watch the video on the web but listen over a live phone connection… They would lose the synchronization of the audio and video.
I was pleased with IVT’s registration management (fully customizable of course), which allows source tracking, customizable confirmation emails, reminder emails, and ad-hoc communications. I also liked the audience question management, which allowed private or public responses and assignment of arbitrary categories to questions. This is a great way to let presenters signal a moderator to “Ask me this one” or “Ignore this one.”
Administrators can even control what functionality is given to each presenter through the use of login links that allow them to see or hide Q&A, polls, or other potentially confusing controls beyond their own presentation slides.
PowerPoint content is uploaded to IVT’s servers and is converted to still images. So there is no support for PowerPoint builds, transitions, and animation effects. Prerecorded video content can be uploaded from formats such as FLV, MP3, MP4, AVI, and WMV. It is transcoded to Flash for use in the webcast.
A major determinant of the perceived performance of a webcast comes from the content delivery network (CDN) used to get the data from the originating server to the viewers’ local networks. IVT has relationships with some of the big CDNs like Akamai, but can also tie in to a customer’s preferred CDN.
I want to keep The Webinar Blog focused on its namesake… software and applications of webinar technology. So you won’t see too many posts dealing with products for small collaborative meetings or massive webcasts. But every once in a while, it’s nice to take a look at the wider world of web collaboration to compare and contrast solution strategies. IVT MediaPlatform gives an indication of the specialized concerns that go into planning and producing a very large web event, and gives professionals in that space a highly flexible platform for achieving their goals.