Web-based conferencing comes of age

Adobe Connect and Cisco Webex tie for first in 8-vendor test

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Join.me offers a free service that only supports computer audio and no meeting scheduling in advance. You just share your entire screen. You also can't swap presenters. The Pro service removes these limitations and is $19 a month for a single presenter, with a yearly pre-paid discount of $149.

All meetings are setup from the Web client, and when you are done specifying the details, the service sends you a zip file that you load up to start the meeting. If you want to participate in the audio conference with your computer's mic and speakers, you will need to download this file as well. You can share particular apps (for the Pro service) or your entire screen, but one thing that you can't share is your webcam. There is a limit of 250 participants per conference. Each meeting gets a special nine-digit number that is part of the URL, so you can send this link (such as http://join.me/123456789) to your participants.

Join.me's user interface is clean. There are buttons to start screen sharing, to join the audioconference, and for text chats.

Logmein Pro

If you have your own audioconferencing service, you can also use that to connect your participants for the Pro service.

I had screen refresh issues when a presenter was running more than a dozen tabs from his computer, and would recommend that anyone using this service keep the number of open tabs on their browser to a minimum.

If you need a lower-cost service to handle a larger audience using a wide variety of desktops and mobiles, then Join.Me's meeting audience limit of 250 participants will be both appealing and cost-effective.

Microsoft Lync 2013

Lync is the latest incarnation of Live Meeting and took the longest to get installed. Part of this was because I was using earlier versions

of Microsoft Office on my desktops and it wants to install the Office 365 Preview. And part could be that there are different feature sets for the different Lync versions, which gets confusing.

Microsoft has a real grab bag of clients that are running older software versions (there is a Mac 2011 version, and 2010 mobile versions for example). The 2013 version can currently only run on either a Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC and is part of Microsoft's Office 365 software as a service package. Microsoft will also have a Window 8-only Lync app available later in October that will be available to IM Skype users and be touch-enabled to work with tablet PCs.

Microsoft Lync

Microsoft unified communications Lync system moves closer to proverbial PBX replacement option

Nevertheless, the 2013 Windows client still crashed several times and I had to re-install it on a second Windows 7 computer before I could continue testing.

Once I got it installed and when it was working, it was easy to start meetings and share various pieces of content. Lync is using the very spare Metro-style interface that will take some getting used to in order to understand what each icon means. Each "tile" will show a webcam, or a shared desktop app, or just the user name of the participants.

Lync charges on a per-user basis, which can add up if you have a lot of users. Each user has to register with a Microsoft account, and the price starts at $6 per month per user and can go higher if you want more advanced features as part of your Office 365 installation.

If you are already using Microsoft's Office Live products, then this might be a useful upgrade. But if you are using older Office versions, you might find installing and using Lync to be as frustrating as I did.

Lync is weak on audio support, only offering built-in computer audio connections. But Microsoft has forged alliances with several audio conferencing services, including InterCall, to provide dial-in service.

Ironically, of all the conferencing services, Lync had trouble keeping our PowerPoint slide presentations in sync, with noticeable delays when we moved from one slide to another. It also had issues with slide font and format fidelity. If you use the Web client, you can't be a presenter or upload files to the shared meeting space.

You can schedule meetings within Outlook 2013, which is probably the simplest, or there is a separate Web admin portal that can also be used.

Skype Premium

Skype is our favorite telephony application and indeed we use it daily as a replacement for our office phone to make calls from our computer and for text-based instant messaging. It excels in small ad hoc situations but as a general-purpose Web meeting service it is lacking.

One issue is that its mobile clients are really not up to the same level of functionality as its desktop clients, or its competitors' mobile clients for that matter. You can't initiate a group video call from the mobile client, for one. Also, the mobile client can't send any video from the phone camera.

You can use the mobile client to view a shared screen or participate in a group audio conference. And if you do a one-to-one call you can get the video from your mobile. Finally, the mobile clients can be slow to connect and post messages, particularly if you make use  a number of group chats as it has to "catch up" with the conversations in those windows when it first loads.

The free version of Skype gives you the option to choose either a live camera video or share your screen. You can have both streams as part of the premium account, which will cost $9 per month per user with yearly discounts available.

And like GoToMeeting, there is no Web client available: you must first download the Skype software and a relatively recent version to support group calls (Skype for Windows 5.10, Skype for Mac 5.8, Skype for iPhone 4.1 and Skype for Android 2.9). You will also need to register with the Skype service to connect to the Web conference: the other services allow anonymous users with just the meeting ID or conference room URL to participate in a conference.

The Skype Premium group call feature has different participant limits depending on what you are going to share, which is somewhat confusing. You can send text messages to up to 300 people, have a voice conference with up to 25 people and share screens with up to 10 people. On the voice conference, you can mix Skype users with PSTN phones, and take advantage of the ultra low Skype rates for those calls.

Skype doesn't include conference recording, but there are many third parties that offer at least audio recording of their calls. My recommendation is to stick with Skype if you need one-on-one calls or for up to three participants, but otherwise look elsewhere for larger meetings.

Vyew Professional

If you want something so simple to set up it will take seconds to get a conference going, then look at Vyew. Even with its free plan, you have sophisticated controls over the rights of what each participant can do, along with comments, real-time text chats, and an integrated audio conferencing service.

Vyew doesn't have a separate mobile client. Since it uses Flash, it won't work in iOS-based devices, and it didn't respond well in my Android phone's mobile browser. But you can't argue the price: there is a free plan for up to 10 participants at a single conference. Vyew also has fee-based versions, with two pricing tiers, Plus and Professional, the latter has an initial limit of 15 participants, which can be expanded up to 80 participants at $1 a month per participant, and an initial $20-a-month fee.

You can share your entire desktop or define a region with a cropping tool. If you want to switch between presenters you first have to stop sharing your screen before your correspondent starts sharing theirs. It also lacks support for webcams.


One of the more interesting features of Vyew is that its conferencing rooms are always open and persist after the meeting, which is similar to what Connect has but is also easier to navigate. This is somewhat more user-friendly than saving the meeting video in an archive, and it can be useful if a group is working together on the same set of documents over a period of days, for example.

It is easier to access these materials, and indeed you can embed a room in your own Web page, than what Webex and GoToMeeting offer with their archive services. You can also set limits on how your participants can access your conference rooms and what level of access they have. Finally, you can't record the conference, unlike some other services, although the company is working on adding that feature.

Vyew is lacking in support, as you might suspect from a low-cost service. You can email your issues to a general mailbox, but there is no direct communications with the vendor. But if you don't mind these limitations, it can be a nice service for lower-end uses.

Strom is the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and has written thousands of magazine articles and two books on various IT and networking topics. His blog can be found at strominator.com and you can follow him on Twitter @dstrom. He lives in St. Louis.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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