Get IT Done: Microsoft Office Live Meeting provides easy entry into Web conferencing

Use this Microsoft Office add-on for online conferences

Web conferencing software has gone through many incarnations during its short lifespan. Originally (and still) marketed as an excellent way to avoid expensive travel costs, previous versions have never quite lived up to their promise of an all encompassing solution for dispersed meetings that any employee can figure out how to use. Features and standards have come and gone quickly, and the dizzying administration tasks required to work with user privileges and firewall issues has likely kept many harried IT managers from investing in this type of technology.

In an effort to change the perception of difficulty among IT pros, Microsoft has positioned its latest version of Web conference software as the "easy to implement and use" solution; likening it to, say, setting up e-mail or accessing the Internet. Can it really be that easy? Let's find out.

PlaceWare runs the show
Picking up where Net Meeting never dreamed of leaving off, Live Meeting is built around the Office 2003 platform. Integrated within the Internet Explorer browser, the software plays nicely with Outlook, PowerPoint, and Microsoft Instant Messaging. In addition, Live Meeting is able to overcome most firewall issues through Microsoft's service provider, PlaceWare, a hosted Web conference software company.

Figuring it is easier to outsource the solution than start from scratch, Microsoft acquired PlaceWare in late April of 2003. PlaceWare has been in the Web conferencing market for quite awhile (in Web conferencing terms) and has developed a solid reputation for availability and scalability. According to the PlaceWare Web site, "PlaceWare maintains more than 150 servers in data centers located around the world. These data centers offer load balancing, redundant (n+1) equipment, no single point of failure, and multiple network connections to various network providers. Redundant equipment and spares accommodate peak load capacity issues." With all that hardware in place, the company also boasts an average 99.999 percent uptime for Web conference meetings.

The new look of conference rooms
The self-paced demo I reviewed showcased many of the ease-of-use features described on the company's Web site. The tools Live Meeting makes available for sharing content were impressive. Taking a page out of any liberal arts college professor's lesson plan, the Web conference software allows collaboration to take place during the meeting. Breaking a meeting down between Presenters and Attendees at the start of a meeting, the software gives complete control to the Presenter. Figure A shows the basic layout for a Web Conference meeting that a Presenter would see.

Figure A
The Presenter controls the flow, timing, and access to the meeting.

However, if a question is raised during the session by an Attendee using either the Chat feature or Question And Answer panel, the control can be passed to the Attendee by the Presenter for further clarification. The Presenter simply clicks on the Insert Sharing Slide button in the top left section of the command buttons to create a sharing session slide. A dialog box is shown in Figure B listing the three choices for sharing available to the presenter.

Figure B
The Presenter can grant access to an Attendee within a small frame of the screen or the entire desktop, or by using a specific application.

Web pages, white boards, text slides, instant poll questions, and snapshots are also available to add feature-rich content to any presentation. In addition, there are several screen annotation buttons on the top right portion of the screen that allow markups to existing slides.

Meeting creation
Your users will especially enjoy the meeting creation features of Live Meeting. Using the Web-based interface, an impromptu meeting can be created in a snap without much training or experience. After logging in, the user sees the equivalent of a personal home page for all future meetings. As shown in Figure C, clicking on the Meetings link in the left navigation bar brings up a screen to show all meetings; past, present, or future.

Figure C
This page is the place to go to see all your meetings.

A click of the Meet Now link in the left navigation bar, and the user can schedule a meeting with colleagues immediately. The user is responsible for sending invitations, uploading slides (which consist of PowerPoint PPT files or PWP files for presentations converted for use in Live Meeting), and joining the meeting as either a Presenter or Attendee (Figure D).

Figure D
The Support Control Panel link is used to monitor the number of active users and which browsers and operating systems attendees are using.

Scheduling meetings is very similar to the Meet Now option, with just the extra task of deciding when it will occur.

PowerPoint works best
One feature that will surely be included in future versions is easier uploading of other Office file types, such as Excel and Word. As I mentioned, Live Meeting works with PowerPoint files during the upload process. The upload function converts PowerPoint files to work within the Live Meeting environment. It would be great to be able to upload an existing Word document or Excel spreadsheet file for use during the presentation. One workaround is to have slides of screenshots of Excel or Word included within the PowerPoint presentation before uploading. Using the Sharing button to grant access to other applications for participants is another option, yet it is bandwidth intensive.

How much?
With businesses looking to cut hard dollar costs, such as travel expense, the question is not really how much, but what is the return on investment? To help you answer that question, the Live Meeting folks have designed a nifty ROI calculator section to their Ordering Information section of the Web site. After using the calculator, you should determine your organization's needs clearly before moving on to the buying phase. Prices start at $.35/per minute for the pay-per-use plan, but they also have more cost-effective monthly seat licensing plans (e.g., 5 seats/$375.00, 10 seats/$750.00). For larger conferencing needs, you're better off calling a sales representative.

Additional features, such as integrated audio conferencing, custom conference screen branding, and 128-bit SSL encryption, will add to the cost. To tempt you to try Live Meeting, there is a no hassle (if you don't mind giving your name and e-mail address), 30 day free trial version available.

On a final note, if collaboration is the key to any successful meeting, today's Web conferencing software is making great strides toward that goal. In the very near future, it's going to be difficult to argue spending thousands of dollars each month shuffling users around the globe when all they need is a broadband connection and a phone.

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