Interwise leads field of 11 vendors in global test of voice/video over IP services

Web conferencing vendors are adding two key features to their baseline data collaboration platforms: voice and video over IP. The advantages of being able to establish a single session for voice, video and data are increased productivity, reduced costs and the ability to produce integrated meeting archives. We tested 11 Web conferencing services from test sites in Switzerland, the U.K., Austria and the U.S. over the course of three weeks to get an "In the Wild" look at the latest services.

There are dozens of Web conferencing services to choose from. We focused on hosted services that are accessible from anywhere on the Internet, and that offer users with a telephone and PC-equipped headset and Web camera a multi-party, integrated voice and/or video-over-IP conference with several presentation, screen/file viewing and data collaboration features. Out of 20 companies invited, we tested 11: Centra, Convoq, Elluminate , FaceToFaceMeeting, Genesys, Interwise, Linktivity, Macromedia, Raindance, VidiTel and WebEx Communications .

Interwise's hosted Enterprise Connection Platform (ECP ), iMeeting Version 5.2, wins the Clear Choice Award for its rich feature set, yet easy-to-use Web conferencing service. It delivered a flawless performance every time we initiated a rich media meeting with people who had (and who hadn't) previously downloaded the software and offered optimal levels of management and security for enterprise IT managers. Interwise also was the only service tested in which participants on the same conference could choose to use either the built-in, high-quality VoIP system or a traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) connection to an Interwise-managed bridge. Using Interwise's softswitch (software bridge), the PSTN and VoIP participant voice qualities are indistinguishable and seamlessly mixed for any size meeting. Regardless how you choose to transmit voice, ECP Connect offers responsive desktop-, application- and file-sharing (or showing) for people on networks with different bandwidths, well-integrated whiteboard tools, co-browsing and simple polling. While the video over IP needs some work, it was another flexible feature in ECP-based meetings.

We were very impressed by the quality of several other services. Linktivity, Raindance and WebEx were excellent and are expected to implement improvements in the months to come.

All services we tested offer a live and responsive "shared space," where small group collaboration can occur (as opposed to a one-to-many event), and all services support at least one real-time video window. Eight of the 11 tested currently offer VoIP as an integral part of the conference (Raindance, Genesys and WebEx did not offer VoIP as an option at the time of testing. Seven of the 11 also offer meeting recording (FaceToFaceMeeting, Convoq, Raindance and VidiTel do not currently archive meetings).

Getting up and running

To deliver the promise of higher employee productivity, rich media conferencing needs to save time when compared with normal ways of conducting business. Although only 10% of the final score focused on setup, foolproof installations and usage in several environments (differing networks, operating system, hardware and software settings) is important for user acceptance and the financial viability of a service provider.

Seven services tested required Java and/or ActiveX for host application installation, usage or both. We found that certain browser settings, such as anything that blocks ActiveX or cookies, can interfere with installation. By extension, we found that Centra only uses Microsoft's implementation of the Java Virtual Machine (not the Sun version). We believe reliance on Microsoft-specific extensions caused an issue with Elluminate and Centra when we tried to enter a meeting with non-Windows browsers. Administrator rights might be needed to make changes to client computers before installation goes smoothly. Another little secret we found during installs was that the services that use ActiveX and Java within browsers can heavily use temporary Internet files. If the application doesn't automatically manage the temporary file cache, users can hit a memory ceiling and encounter difficulties during installation or usage.

Users don't always have rich media input devices (headsets and Web cameras) plugged into their PCs when they click on a meeting link. The result can be a lack of video or audio when entering a meeting with a platform that loads the media only at the start of one. Although we found a drawback with how it deals with video, Interwise's iMeeting was very adept at detecting and adapting quickly on the user's behalf to changes in media inputs and network connectivity. (We discovered that if a user is disconnected during an iMeeting, the application automatically tries to renegotiate with the same or a different server on the peered network grid on behalf of the user.)

Setup went extremely smoothly with Linktivity, Raindance and VidiTel, and we also got great speed and ease of use from services that use Flash (Convoq ASAP and Macromedia Breeze). Our testing team members connected to the hosted servers with anything from 128K to 1.5M bit/sec (the majority of the testers were on 1.5M bit/sec or higher). Based on regional differences (Europe vs. the U.S.) and possible connectivity bottlenecks between continents, we felt the hosting service providers' ISPs (rather than the services themselves) differed significantly in how well they served our needs. Although several test team members completed it on the first attempt, the longest set-up time required 8.5 minutes with FaceToFaceMeeting. We also found it irritating that WebEx required a partial re-install of the application each time a user or host enters a meeting.

Special features

Offering optional features (such as PowerPoint conversion and scheduling capabilities) in the form of plug-ins that can be installed separately as user needs evolve was a good strategy, exemplified by Interwise, Linktivity, Convoq and Macromedia. We also feel that user account naming conventions should be intuitive to users such as using family names or e-mail addresses. We dislike the legacy (PSTN-centric audioconferencing) feeling of numeric codes Genesys and Raindance use for identifying user accounts. In both cases, the user is issued a seven- to 10-digit meeting code (the same number, the user ID and meeting code, is stamped on a plastic card mailed to the user) and a four-digit PIN.

Getting people into a meeting at the appropriate time is critical to the success of a rich media conference. Services that support meeting scheduling (all those tested integrated scheduling through a portal or in conjunction with Outlook, with the exception of VidiTel and FaceToFaceMeeting) must always keep track of participant time zones. When populating an invitation for a meeting to be scheduled in the future, the service should ask what time zone the invitee is in. In some services this can be set once and saved on the server. In others, the invitation list is generated based on e-mail addresses, and there are neither time zones registered nor conversions offered. We also discovered that daylight-saving changes one week earlier in Europe than in North America, which Interwise handled gracefully but confused Genesys (we didn't test all the services on that week to see if others had correctly programmed their time zones). Elluminate Live requires that users convert from their time to Mountain Time. Integration with Exchange and Outlook and/or Lotus Notes simplifies this task, and in a corporation will offer a way to check participant availabilities and resolve phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Most of the Web-based (service portal) meeting scheduling was simple to use, but in a few cases the numerous options made for an excessively long process; for example, the WebEx full-feature scheduling wizard has at least nine steps. Genesys' scheduling was equally long. Convoq ASAP doesn't offer a way to take advantage of a user's local Notes or Outlook calendaring features, but it is the only service to go the extra mile in the other direction. ASAP tracks an attendee's presence (away, available, busy, offline) by monitoring and integrating his public instant-messaging service buddy lists and the enterprise IM/presence management systems in its main user interface, which resides in the Windows system tray when not in use.

We lived through the pain customers experience when they must rely solely on audioconference bridges for the voice portion of their meetings. For example, getting testers in Switzerland and the U.S. to hear one another on the same conference bridge without intercontinental toll charges was a significant challenge with Raindance and Genesys. Both could offer dial-out services (for which someone ultimately must foot the bill) but users have to correctly enter their number including country access codes, and toll-free U.S. numbers can't be dialed from international locations. Sometimes a "+" symbol, a space or a parenthesis can set you back to the process of entering a phone number. In one instance, after about 15 minutes we managed to begin our meeting but we were short a participant who only could attend for the first short period before needing to attend another meeting.

To reduce the likelihood of a delayed meeting because of participant difficulties with the meeting software, Raindance meeting hosts can request live telephone customer support (an operator available via the integrated audioconference bridge) in 15 seconds or less.

We found it easy to start an ad hoc meeting from Outlook or a slim dashboard application in Genesys, Raindance, WebEx, Linktivity, Macromedia, Convoq and Interwise. It also is very easy to start a conference if you and the other meeting participants have the FaceToFaceMeeting and VidiTel applications running. Perhaps reflecting their heritage in the large event and educational worlds, we had to go through a portal (engaging a multistep process) to start any type of meeting in Centra and Elluminate.

Services differ widely in their ability to invite a new (ad hoc) participant into a meeting once the session has begun. We like the options Centra, Convoq, Raindance, WebEx, FaceToFaceMeeting and VidiTel offer to add a participant from within the application using an integrated IM invitation and the optional e-mail invitation. Genesys has a concept of an "Xpress meeting" from which ad hoc participants easily can be added by way of IM (but this feature is not available in the "normal" Genesys meeting). To invite someone when you are already in a Macromedia Breeze session, you must generate a new e-mail (Breeze provides a pre-configured template) or manually paste the URL into an IM. Because our testers weren't required to all be on the same public IM service, this could get to be a lot of cutting and pasting. Unfortunately, you can't use the application or service to invite someone in an ad hoc automated fashion when you are in an Elluminate meeting (you still have the option of pasting the URL into an IM or e-mail manually during the meeting).

Behind closed doors

As a matter of corporate policy or individual project needs, companies often have reservations about rich media conferencing over the Internet, or using hosted services, on the grounds of security and privacy.

Service providers ensured a high level of security in several ways. One way was to dedicate a server per enterprise customer, firewall each server and establish a VPN connection with the corporation. This method reproduces a premises-based system, and the service can manage only the server and features. Because our 16-member testing team was distributed across 14 Internet domains in the U.S. and Europe, we chose not to test this network configuration, and only tested services that are accessible on the public Internet.

We scored the services based on a comparison of the precautions offered by the services such as randomly generated meeting codes and passwords, the ability to lock meetings and require registration for entry. We didn't try to hack into meetings uninvited, break user password codes, eavesdrop on the encrypted media or take other steps to test the security in our real-world meetings.

All the services tested use proprietary signaling mechanisms to permit media to cross firewalls and to resolve calls between network address translation users (all test team members used private IP addresses). All the services tested also use SSL to encrypt session signaling and content.

Servers for Centra, Interwise, Linktivity, Macromedia and WebEx generated a unique meeting ID for each meeting. Others, including Convoq, Elluminate, Linktivity, WebEx and Genesys, give the meeting host the option to require those invited to reply by e-mail to register for the session. We found that virtually all the services can set a meeting password for participant use upon entry, with the exception of FaceToFaceMeeting and VidiTel, which use a call-me method for initiating meetings.

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