ConnectSolutions announced a new webcast product offering today. I got an early demo of the new Podium platform last week, but I have not used it on a real webcast, so my impressions are driven from a vendor-controlled walkthrough and discussions with the CEO, Michael Fitzpatrick.
Although Michael and ConnectSolutions have a history of web collaboration offerings based on the Adobe Connect product (thus the company name), Podium is a completely new piece of software, independently created and supported by ConnectSolutions. It has nothing to do with Adobe or Adobe Connect.
Podium is primarily designed for large audience webcasts with a heavy emphasis on live video of presenters in a single location – probably in a studio or controlled video production room. I see representative examples as including: Official corporate announcements; Large enterprise investor relations webcasts; Experts on panel discussions; Government presentations to the public. Michael says that they have already run events with 10,000 participants and they feel comfortable supporting 50,000 person webcasts.
Podium takes an interesting approach in that it requires the use of a third-party encoder to create a Flash audio/video stream of any content you want to transmit. This differs from other webcast products such as ON24, Stream57, and Vivu, as well as all major webinar-oriented technologies. Those have integrated encoders, which allows a presenter to simply click on a function such as “Share my desktop” or “Show my webcam” or “Display my PowerPoint slides.” Podium doesn’t know about those content sources. It relies on getting a digital content stream that has already been assembled from the desired sources. That sentence may be confusing if you are unfamiliar with the concept of streaming encoders. It does not mean you have to create your content ahead of time and record it for later use in your web session. You can still do things on the fly such as show the video from your camera while you speak on the live session, show web pages, or do software demonstrations. You can move through PowerPoint or KeyNote slides on your computer.
But it means that the presenter’s computer must feed its display content into a program such as Wirecast, ViewCast Niagara, or Flash Media Live Encoder. These programs turn the locally displayed information into a digital signal suitable for transmitting over the Web.
Once Podium has the stream content, it does a great job of pushing it out to each participant’s computer. I saw a crystal clear video image even in full screen display. There was no buffering, no stuttering, no motion artifacts. When Michael showed his desktop, he was able to smoothly scroll entire screens of text up and down and I saw it move as smoothly as if I were looking at his physical screen. There was absolutely zero “poll and redraw” breaks in the action. I asked how Podium deals with slower connections among different audience members. Michael told me that the software constantly checks each participant’s available bandwidth and performance and dynamically scales the transmitted video stream up or down in quality to create a smooth image. I would need to test a slow connection, but I would expect the image to get progressively fuzzier, “blockier”, and less smooth as connection bandwidth decreased.
I have mentioned Flash a number of times so far. If you own an iPhone or iPad, you know this means you are out of luck, as Apple refuses to support Flash on their mobile devices. But ConnectSolutions allows mobile devices to receive an H.264 MPEG video stream instead of Flash, opening attendance to people with Apple devices.
Podium uses the concept of “panels” to display additional features for audience members. A series of icons at the bottom of the screen toggle panels on and off in vertical strips next to the main content display area, which shrinks or expands accordingly.
Q&A lets audience members ask questions in a moderated queue that only the presenters can see. A presenter can answer a question privately to the asker or publicly to the entire audience (the original question is displayed along with the answer).
Another panel allows public chat, where audience members can have a freeform text conversation with all other audience members. At this time there is no facility allowing private conversations between individuals.
An event information panel can display any HTML compatible source that the producers want to create. This could be text, links to web documents, social media integration, or static graphics such as logos.
Another panel option (producers can decide which panels they want to make available for an event) is a “Scratchpad” which lets audience members jot private notes as they listen and then save the notes as a PDF or email them for later reference. I like the general idea of this feature, but I found the implementation to be a bit restrictive, with each note persisting as a time stamped individual entity. I wanted more flexibility to reorder, edit, or delete notes as new relationships and thoughts occurred to me.
In addition to the panels, Podium lets producers create announcement messages that pop up and overlay the main video display area in the lower left corner of the screen. In this initial implementation, the announcement window is fixed in size and position. While it allows full HTML code - permitting links, graphics, and formatting – there is no facility for creating a library of predesigned announcements that can be selected and displayed. If you want to build and test a fancy announcement overlay ahead of time, you have to copy and paste your HTML code into the editor during your event. There is also no way for audience members to go back and see an announcement that has disappeared.
Michael was very proud of an innovative feature for collecting post-event feedback. Instead of just displaying a survey or poll, producers can display a page that lets attendees record audio/video messages for the producers/presenters. This is a cute selling feature, but I am cynical about its practicality. The number of audience members with audio/video hardware hooked up and ready to record their commentary is going to be only a subset of the entire audience. And having a library full of video responses is very difficult to summarize, edit, or quickly look through for specific keywords or important statements in the middle of a lot of other filler. We’ll see how it turns out in real use by customers.
Some of the features I am used to in formal web event products are not implemented yet. There is no facility for audience polling during an event, no prioritization or markup of questions that have been submitted, and no registration management (build registration pages, send confirmation & reminder emails). Currently an event has a single login link for all attendees, and ConnectSolutions assumes you will use a third party registration system to get viewer info and send them instructions and communications.
Michael says that they will support single event pricing if desired by a customer, but the more common licensing model will be flat rate annual subscriptions allowing unlimited use of the product for audience sizes up to a predetermined maximum.
ConnectSolutions Podium is clearly going to appeal most strongly to large organizations with technical support staff who can install, manage, and use streaming encoders as well as creating HTML-heavy panel and announcement information. It will be used in a centralized presentation location and all presenters on a webcast will come to that location. Its main strengths include excellent video display performance, a simple interface for audience members, large audience scalability, and the flexibility to reach non-Flash mobile devices.