Is it Live or WebEx?

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GCN Lab tests two leading online collaboration tools and finds Microsoft's easier to use

Being a lab reviewer entails a lot of meetings, sometimes three or four a week, with companies that have new products they want to demonstrate. For the past several years, almost all of the meetings that boast a Web component have been conducted using Meeting Center software from WebEx Communications Inc.

The WebEx software has captured most of the online meeting market, to the point where people are starting to use it as a noun like Kleenex or Xerox, as in 'Let's do a WebEx on this new product.'

Slowly but surely however, some of our online meetings are being conducted on a different platform: Microsoft's Live Meeting. Not to be outdone, WebEx has tried to stay ahead with a new version of its Meeting Center. We decided to try the latest versions of each platform to see which is better, both from a participant and a presenter standpoint.

Microsoft Live Meeting 2005

Reviewer's comments: Easy for all participants to use, but limited meeting control

Box score: A-

Performance: A-

Ease of use: A

Features: B

Value: B+

Microsoft is making an aggressive push into this space, and they are using a lot of their old tricks to make the move successful. One of the smartest things they did was the same thing that worked when Office XP came out. They designed the program with the same standard Microsoft look and feel. If a user knows how to use Word or Excel, they are going to have a much easier time learning Live Meeting 2005.

For example, the well-known layout of 'getting started' panels on one side and function icons along the top is the rule of the day. Even if you have not been officially trained to use Live Meeting, Office users intuitively know that if they want to do something with the program, there's probably an icon for that function. You can hover your mouse over the buttons till you find the right one.

From a presenter standpoint, much has changed to make Live Meeting easy to use. For example, the program now supports a three-pane layout, which is not only efficient, but works well with modern large-format LCDs, many of which have 16 by 9 layout ratios. You can set up the program with your slide deck in one window, a thumbnail of the next slide in the second window and the live window visible to meeting participants in the third.

Live Meeting 2005 not only looks like Office, but is now integrated into it as well. You can launch a presentation from Word or Excel for example. Common formats like Word files, Acrobat Portable Document Format files or Excel spreadsheets are automatically converted into slides for Live Meeting. Also, the program now accepts all your Microsoft PowerPoint transition effects such as fades, wipes and special graphics. So anything fancy you make in PowerPoint will be displayed in your Live Meeting presentation too.

It is now also much easier to control the presentation and keep it free from interruptions. Many times someone arriving late to a meeting will accidentally disrupt it. Once a presentation begins, you can set Live Meeting to send all latecomers to a special waiting room that is separate from the main area. Presenters can easily see who is in the waiting room and can either ignore them altogether or can pick the appropriate time to bring them out of purgatory and into the main meeting.

You can also set up interface defaults that will load each time you use the program as a presenter. So you no longer have to configure things to your preferences each and every time.

Microsoft may have oversimplified at least one area, however, by creating only three possible security levels for each user. Users can be administrators, which gives them full access to all controls and functions. They can be organizers, which gives a lot of control for an individual presentation. Or they can be members, which basically gives view-only access, plus a few other options as set by an organizer (for a specific presentation) or an administrator (as overall member policy). We would have liked to see some type of level between member and organizer in case you want specific members to do more with certain presentations but not really have full organizer or administrator access. You can set things up this way, but doing so would give all members the same permission and not individuals.

Audio support is integrated into the program and uses InterCall Inc., MCI Inc. or BT Group Plc. We tested Live Meeting with MCI audio. It was very clear and easy to understand both presenters and participants. As an administrator or organizer you have a lot of control over the audio side. You can mute all participants or allow two-way talking on the fly, for example, which would be good for a training session. You could mute people during the presentation and then allow them to talk during the question and answer time. You can also record the entire session including what is on the screen and what everyone says. You can play back the session using Windows Media Player 9 or 10, although 10 works better for this.

The price differences between Live Meeting and WebEx are almost negligible. In fact, over the month-long test period we were working on this review they both changed several times, seemingly in reaction to one another. As of this writing, they are both sitting at $75 per seat per month, which is a bit expensive, but there are myriad ways to pay for the service, including paying by the minute, a shared-seat plan and discounts for multiple users. Expect the two companies to continue to match each other's price plans for their express, easy-to-deploy versions.

WebEx Meeting Center

Reviewer's comments: The more fully featured and functional of the two, but hard to set up

Box score: B+

Performance: A

Ease of use: B-

Features: A+

Value: B+

It is easy to see why WebEx has captured the majority of the Web conferencing market. Like Live Meeting, everything needed to run a meeting is stored on servers and clients only need to download a very small application to get things set up'and of course pay to use the service.

Since WebEx has been around for so long, it makes sense that they are in a position to branch out and add new and innovative features to the mix. You can now add live feeds from up to four cameras as part of your presentation. We set up a meeting with two cameras, one running from a rugged military videoconferencing system (see review, next page) and one from a standard off-the-shelf camera. During a Web conference, the video feeds from both cameras worked great and could be used to really spruce up a standard text or PowerPoint-only presentation.

Once you have access to WebEx by buying the number of seats you need, you use another program called WebEx Express to configure a meeting page on your internal Intranet. From here you invite all your meeting participants and generally control who gets access to the WebEx system.

One of our biggest complaints with WebEx is not the nuts and bolts of how it works, but of the steep learning curve associated with running a WebEx system from a presenter or administrator standpoint. Many of the features in this version of the program make it easier to run presentations, though the setup and mastery of the software is still a chore.

The biggest change we found for giving presentations is the addition of an innovative PowerPanel, which acts as the brains of the program for presenters. When something happens, such as someone leaving a meeting or typing in their chat window, the presenter is notified with a flashing button, like the warning light on a car's dashboard. The administrator can choose to share some of the PowerPanel functions with users, so as a presenter you can make the presentation more or less interactive depending on the situation.

WebEx also can integrate itself into Microsoft Office using a plug-in. But the main way to schedule a meeting is to go to the site you have hopefully set up on your Intranet and schedule time with the system. You can invite users, set the start and end times and even dictate whether or not this is a one-time meeting, or a weekly or daily event.

Despite many improvements, WebEx is still rather difficult to use the first time around. There are a lot of advanced features, such as sharing applications between meeting participants, that take some practice to master. While WebEx has more features than Live Meeting, it took an entire day to become proficient with WebEx as opposed to about half an hour or less with Live Meeting.

Setting up your personal Meeting Center Website is also a bit of a chore, to the point where WebEx will offer to build it for you, but at a cost of up to $3,000 depending on how complex you need it to be.

Once your WebEx meeting begins, setting each user's permission levels is easy, and there are many options you can configure for each person with a simple click or two. Some users might be able to draw on top of documents for example, while others can do nothing but watch.

So which program is better?

If you have not implemented any form of Web sharing tools within your agency and just need basic Web conferencing tools, then Live Meeting 2005 is the best way to go. If users know how to use Word or Excel, they will be 90 percent trained on Live Meeting. The only real problem you will run into is the somewhat limited security definitions, as far as who can do what with the program.

If you require more control over your Web sharing activities, then WebEx is the program to choose. Ultimately, you can do more with WebEx, but this may require a dedicated employee to act as the super-administrator over the program, or several hours of training for each presenter.

For most of the meetings we attend in the GCN Lab'product demos and company briefings'Live Meeting would work fine and most people could get it off the ground and running quickly.

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