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06 Feb 2015

Staff Picks: Web Conference Tools

Intro

Only a few years ago, it was common for a handful of people to gather in a meeting room and dial in one or two others from remote locations via a speakerphone in the middle of the big table.

It wasn’t uncommon for it to take a few attempts to get the remote participants on the line together or to have to ask one of them to repeat what they had said.

Then the technology progressed to video conferencing and we all delighted in being able to see the smiling faces of our colleagues, clients and collaborators as we chatted.

However as advances in technology both facilitate and respond to the ongoing evolution of the workplace, video conferencing is being replaced by the far more productive web conferencing.

Global growth, innovation and leadership company Frost & Sullivan recently released the results of its annual survey of more than 1000 IT professionals and the half that weren’t already using web conferencing said they expected their business to adopt it in the next three years.

Frost & Sullivan principal analyst Rob Arnold believes “we’re finally getting to the point now where we talk about UC (unified communication) as something that is a business enabler, or can enhance your business and its processes, so it works smarter”.

That’s a view we are happy to subscribe to.

SeeSharp Productions certainly isn’t in an unusual position, collaborating with international, interstate and even “local” clients and suppliers who are many kilometres away from our office, meaning there is a limit to how practical the traditional face-to-face meeting is.

At the same time, phone calls can be extremely limiting when so much of what we need to explain, demonstrate and discuss is online.

So the fact that web conferencing has become an integral part of our day-to-day operations is, as they say, a no-brainer.

We have also found that nearly everyone we deal with is extremely comfortable working on a computer, so “taking a call” or having a meeting via that same device is not a stretch.

Having used numerous evolving tools and services over the years, here are some of our thoughts on what works well and why.

A couple of factors to keep in mind as you read on. Firstly, different sized businesses in different industry sectors are likely to be looking for slightly different things from web conferencing software and, secondly, the price point needs to be taken into account.

While free solutions could well meet your entry-level requirements, when you do need more features you may not have to ramp up to something costing $50 or more a month – particularly if that solution has features you will rarely, if ever, take advantage of.

Skype

Since launching in 2003, Skype has dominated the web conferencing game as a free, easy to use and reliable tool. Almost everyone who significantly uses the internet has an account, in fact it’s so ubiquitous that “Skype” is used as a verb, in much the same way as “Google”.

It’s familiar and comfortable so even though we don’t think Skype is the best tool for our purposes, we still refer to it as a starting point for remote interaction online. Of course everyone has to have it installed and you do need to log in and find each participant to connect.

Apple FaceTime

As avid Apple users FaceTime is extremely reliable – more reliable than other tools that rely on the stability of a data connection – it’s extremely genuine on data consumption. Its main shortcoming is that it is still only one-to-one, but it is ideal for a quick high quality voice or video call straight from the iPhone.

We sure are no strangers to Apple’s way of getting everyone on their devices.

Join.Me

When assessing what works best for our business, we are obviously mindful of what will work best for clients as well, so the number one requirement for a web conferencing solution is that it has to be hassle free. One of the advantages of Join.Me is that the other party doesn’t have to install the software.

You give the other person/people the local number (they have numbers in 40 countries) and the conference ID and they simply dial in.

The second most important feature is screen sharing and Join.Me allows any of those in the conference to share their screen, meaning you can swap “presenters” during the meeting. This can be very handy if a client or collaborator needs some expert advice or troubleshooting of some sort.

Another key plus is the simplicity of recording the meeting, either for future reference (they are stored securely in the cloud) or so someone who is unavailable at the time can catch up later.

Most important Join.Me has become the ONLY web communications tool that we pay for on a monthly basis.

GoToMeeting Free (formerly hu.tt – which I thought was a cooler name)

Like Join.Me, GoToMeeting has focused on ease of use, with a one-click conference initiation. No installation needed, no log-in, just copy and paste a link on your browser and chat away. There’s more to this – you can do a one-way screen-share as well on the very same platform.

The main limitation of the free version is that it only allows three people in the meeting and once your business needs a greater capacity, it does become a bit costly. Additionally, the fully-featured versions of the GoTo family of products seem to be designed more for running webinars and online coaching.

Having said that, GoToMeeting Free is an ideal entry point to web conferencing as all you need is a browser and the link. Once again, simplicity is key.

TeamViewer

This is an app with a very specific advantage, which makes it the “go to” solution for remote troubleshooting. Its primary function is to allow remote access to a workstation, so that a technical support person or expert can take over the operation of someone else’s computer to sort things out.

A recent example of one of my staff on holidays troubleshooting from a busy street in China off 4G network. This really proved that productivity can be achieve regardless of locations nowadays.

Facebook Phone

Facebook’s video calling has been implemented in partnership with Skype and the acquisition of Whatsap. And given that nearly everyone is on Facebook, it has some appeal. This actually has given some positive juice to the bad reviews of the new Facebook Messenger App. Having said that, this might get a little messy for non Facebook avid users (which is becoming less and less), and that might be less-than-appropriate for sophisticated business use (which again, becoming more of a non-factor nowadays)!

Google+ Hangouts

You need to install a couple of plugins to get started, but once that’s done it is pretty easy to have a group discussion. It is targeted somewhere between a social destination for friends and a place for organisations to make someone significant available to their followers for PR purposes, but is simple enough for small businesses who don’t need things like screen sharing when they have a meeting.

Like Apple and Facebook, I strongly believe this is Google’s way to streamline users who are on Google+, Google Apps, Android and the likes.

In Summary

Back in the day people gravitated to Skype as much to save costs as any other reason, but now that mobile minutes and data are much cheaper, that advantage isn’t as strong.

In fact the likes of Skype and Google+ via a mobile handset chews up the data and also relies heavily on having a good connection, whereas just dialing in using your phone network and not the data plan can ease that.

With a solution such as Join.Me, despite the many pluses of sitting in an office in front of a screen for the conference, people can still participate by phoning in from a car or in transit somewhere where they can’t be at a decent-sized screen.

In an ideal world everyone would be on the same page and use only one predominant web conferencing solution, although at the moment it seems highly unlikely that one company will dominate the market as Google has done for search and Facebook and Twitter with social.

However all indications are that before much longer it won’t be unusual for associates to commit to one of these platforms and using a solution such as Join.Me will become increasingly popular and prevalent – almost second-nature.

It might be some time before web conferencing replaces phone calls or face-to-face as the first option for meetings, but we are moving forward at a reasonable pace.

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