I recently received a bill from Citrix for just over $1,000. The reason for this charge is because I perform online training classes and use their GoToTraining software application. In all, this is a pretty decent product, allowing me to engage with my class members, manage a chat room, share my screen, and allow open communications with my virtual class members. That said, I decided it was time to take another look at the marketplace to see what other options are available. What I learned is there is not enough innovation in this space, and it feels like I am paying a premium for aging technology.
Basic web conferencing needs
As a consultant and trainer, my needs go beyond a generic software product with a chat window and screen sharing. I need the ability to carefully curate the user experience. I may want to upload slides, share my screen, share my audio, lock others out of audio, add additional hosts to present with me, and let other people share their screens. I need the capability to do all of this with a nice clean user interface.
Ideally, the software should have Internet audio or the ability to dial-in to local or toll-free numbers. Some people might think dialing in is a thing of the past, but Internet audio still has its challenges, so a dial-in is often much better than streaming.
An attendee should not have to go through much trouble. They should get a link (preferably in their calendar) and that is it. They simply click and everything is taken care of from there. Want to use Internet audio? No problem. Want to use your phone? No problem. The software has a service that will dial the phone number and give you access without the attendee ever having to dial a number.
Given today's mobility options, the web conferencing software should have the ability to share a screen on a Windows, Mac, or Linux device and stream that to any modern mobile device. Even mobile devices should have chat and survey capabilities.
Ideally, I can produce private events with a few members or webinars, allowing anyone to join.
A few final requirements include the ability to save the recording, poll users with questions, and stream to a live service like YouTube and Facebook.
Reviewing the options
There are plenty of products out on the market. Simply do a Google search for Web Conferencing software and you will find hundreds of links to products. I certainly was not going to research every one of these for my little business. I know there are some great products out there that focus on one type of meeting over another, but I need a solution that is backed by lots of customers, offers a phone support option, and is not prone to problems because all the good features are in some beta form. I am an early adopter, but not when I am putting my brand on the line.
Here are the products I took a serious look at:
- Adobe Connect
- Amazon Chime
- Cisco WebEx
- GoToMeeting, GoToTraining, and GoToWebinar. (I decided to take a second look since LogMeIn now owns these products that were previously owned by Citrix.)
- Microsoft Skype for Business
- I also took a cursory look at Zoom.us, LogMeIn, Google Hangouts, and BlueJeans.
- $50/month with 25 participants.
- $130/month for 100 participants, and up to $580/month for 1,000 participants.
It looks like Adobe has some really nice features to create branded sites to promote your sessions and offers visual layouts so you can really brand your conference the way you want. Of course, it is Adobe, so the visual style and terminology will be really familiar to anyone who uses other Adobe products like Photoshop or Illustrator. Here are the highlights I liked about Adobe Connect:
- Personalized branding.
- Advanced recording tools.
- Pods (or apps, for the rest of us) allow you to add more functionality to the product. Looking at the list, I saw some useful apps like a countdown timer and the ability to see up to 100 attendees on a second monitor.
Unfortunately, the process for getting Adobe Connect to work was a challenge right from the get-go. Once you sign up, Adobe sends you a link with a username and password. That link did not work for me and I was told that it can take some time to set up. Sure enough, about 15-minutes later I could access the site. This whole process gave me concern. I did not like the idea of a password sent to me, rather than my typing a password. I also thought it odd Adobe Connect did not immediately prompt me to change that password. Waiting a few minutes to get the service is okay I guess, but when you just get a DNS error on your browser, it doesn't feel like a good starting experience.
Here are the cons I find with the product itself:
- Adobe Flash is required to share your screen. I hear Adobe is working on removing this, but you still must install Flash. To be honest, I stopped my full review because of this particular requirement. In order for me to collaborate with colleagues, they tend to be okay with installing software, but too many of my clients have disabled or at least forbid the use of Flash on the desktop. Why, in this day and age, Flash is still a requirement is beyond me, but I am sure Adobe has its reasons.
- No dial-in support. For a product with a premium price point, I am shocked you do not get a dial-in service. Adobe has partners you can work with to add your own dial-ins and there is a place where you can put your dial-in number, but not providing this as a basic option was another reason I could not go with the product.
- Basic is free and allows two people to attend a chat room.
- Plus is $2.50/user/month. You can chat, share your screen, and even control a remote desktop. Like Basic, this feature is limited to two people. I bet IT will like this feature for remote administration of their user's computers.
- Pro is $15/user/month and has all the features of Basic and Plus. Pro adds the ability to host and record your sessions. I am only reviewing the Pro version.
The day I received that $1,000-plus invoice from Citrix for my GoToTraining account, I also received a surprise Amazon Chime email. I had no idea Amazon was working on a web conferencing application and I was even more surprised it comes from the AWS team (are they looking to compete against Google and Microsoft in the productivity space?). The website promises to provide higher quality video (less skipping), an intuitive user interface, and a better way to run meetings.
In my experience, the promises Amazon makes may be in a future release. Amazon seems to update its products frequently, and the AWS team seems to be really good at releasing newer and better software at a pretty fast clip, so I hope Chime gets that frequency of updates as well.
Chime is a great product for those that want to fire up a working session, share your camera to connect virtually, and share your screen. Here are some of the features I like:
- Clean user interface. Unlike most web conferencing applications, Chime has a crisp, clean user interface, making it easy to navigate the features.
- The web browser interface makes it easy to quickly join a meeting and attend with audio.
- Event mode allows you to mute all the attendees to avoid that one person crunching away on their breakfast cereal while you talk.
Chime is still in its infancy and I hope it really ups the game in the coming year, but unfortunately it lacks some core features. For example:
- No whiteboard. There is no way to easily share a place to markup ideas.
- Dial-in fees. Unlike most web conferencing services, Amazon Chime requires you to pay for anyone that dials in. Using the U.S. pricing of $.003/minute/attendee, you can figure a meeting with five people dialing in will cost you about 10 cents. However, if you like to do a Webinar Wednesday to drive new sales, and have 100 people dialing in to the toll-free number at $.012, then each call would be $72. If you run a lot of meetings and your attendees require dial-in capabilities, the fees can add up quickly.
- Two-user interfaces for Chime. One allows you to add users and another lets you manage meetings. If you are in a meeting and want to add another user, you cannot do that unless they are already in a list somewhere else. Sure, you can copy the link and email it, but that seems like overkill.
- Bare bones. While I appreciate the simplicity of the design, there are no advanced features under the hood, so polling users, managing your meetings, doing webinars for a wider audience, and changing presenters seem to be missing.
- As of this writing, there is a small technical support area on the website, yet it is read-only, so if you have a question you are out of luck.
- Premium 8, allowing for up to eight people per meeting for $24/user/month.
- Premium 25, allowing for up to 25 people per meeting for $49/user/month.
- Premium 100, allowing for up to 100 people per meeting for $69/user/month (although this seems to be a special where it is normally is $89/user/month).
- For webinar pricing, you need to call for a quotation.
- For training pricing, you need to call for a quotation.
In my mind, WebEx is the one to beat. They have a strong product that works on all the popular operating systems and by far have the best feature set. WebEx seems to be the standard for most midsize and large companies, so you rarely find a problem with someone trying to run the app.
- Installation. If someone does need to install the WebEx client (as opposed to the browser), you are almost guaranteed it will work even on hardened IT networks (granted, the user must be able to install software, but you get the idea).
- Packed with all the features you need, from polling to personal and public chats, and an easy to use calendar setup process.
- Costly. WebEx may be the one to beat, but you pay a premium for the service.
- Costly Call Me fees. If you want WebEx to call your attendees, the prices range from $45/month to $225/month. Overages or pay-as-you-go range from 9 cents/minute to 12 cents/minute (respectively). If you want this feature, you will need to keep a close eye on your usage.
GoToMeeting, GoToTraining, and GoToWebinar
- GoToMeeting: Free for three attendees and limited functionality, $19/month for 10 participants, $29/month for 50 participants, and $49/month for 100 participants.
- GoToTraining: $109, $159, and $314/month with 25, 50, and 200 participants (respectively).
- GoToWebinar: $89, $199, and $429/month with 100, 500, and 2,000 participants (respectively). You can contact their sales department for a 5,000 participant plan.
For purposes of this review, I am looking at GoToMeeting and GoToTraining. Aside from WebEx, I feel the GoTo products are the most capable in terms of feature sets, functionality, and ease of installation. The screen sharing is fast, most of the features I mention in the needs section are there, and the product is pretty solid. About a year or so ago, I saw an article that said the CEO is trying to keep the apps separate so the teams can innovate at a faster pace. That sounds like a good idea, but in reality I am sorry to say there has not been that much new innovation.
The GoTo products do allow users to dial-in to a call, and that is baked into the price of the product. I was really excited to see they offer a Call Me service where the attendee can receive a phone call without having to dial a number and enter a pin. The service also includes toll-free numbers and is only available in U.S. and Canada. The fee for this service is 8 cents/minute. If five people use the Call Me feature for an hour-long call, then the meeting will cost $2.40. If you are doing a training session for two days with 25 people and everyone uses the Call Me feature, the cost will be about $78.
Microsoft Skype for Business
- Standalone: $5/month.
- Certain Office 365 Services (like E3 and E5): Free
Here is one of the more depressing parts of this article I have to write. As an Office 365 E3 (Enterprise) customer, I get the use of Skype for Business. Skype for Business allows you to set up meetings directly from Microsoft Outlook. That is the first problem. Anyone that knows me is aware I am a diehard Microsoft Office power user, but I do not use Outlook. Supposedly, there is a way to set up meetings from a Skype for Business admin page, but I could not find it and just gave up.
Unfortunately, Microsoft just renamed an old product called Lync to a new product called Skype for Business. The latter looks a little nicer, but there are really no changes. Forget trying to reach Mac or Linux users because Mac users will need Lync 2011(!) on their computer and if there is Linux support, I cannot find it.
Where I do think Skype for Business excels is when you use the product internally for meetings within your company. If you want to use Skype for people outside your business, the user experience is just not there.
- Great for internal corporate meetings.
- Perfect solution for ad-hoc screen sharing sessions.
- Tight integration with Outlook.
- Uses old Lync clients.
- Mac users may find themselves clicking the link multiple times before they can attend the meeting.
- Depending on what version of Skype for Business you are using (Lync 2011, Skype for Business for the PC or the browser), the user interface can be different. For example, I just attended a meeting on my Mac using the browser and could not see the chat area and the presentation at the same time.
- No dial-in feature where you can give out your own phone number.
- No Call Me feature unless your business runs a PBX. (I could be wrong about this, but that is how I understand it.)
After all these reviews, I think it is fair to segment the web conferencing marketing into the following categories:
- Support: Allow a person to share their desktop to do some debugging on a remote computer. LogMeIn and the low-end version of Amazon Chime seem to fit nicely into this category.
- Meetings: Allow a small team of people to hold ad-hoc or planned meetings where anyone might share their screen. All the products I mention here seem to fall into this category.
- Webinars: Allow a presenter to share their screen, or video of themselves out to a wide audience. The presenter needs tools to do things like silence the attendees, offer a dial-in number, and record the session. GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, Amazon Chime, and Adobe Connect all seem to fit the bill for this category.
- Corporate events: Similar to webinars, a presenter is sharing their screen, but in an all-hands style meant only for internal corporate employees. WebEx and Skype for Business seem a best fit for these types of situations. Of course, other products can do this, but WebEx and Skype feel most suited for the job.
- Events: In this scenario, hundreds or even thousands of people are watching your presentation at one time. Certainly there are products like GoToWebinar to meet that need, but it would seem that is where Google Hangouts, YouTube, and Facebook streaming tend to be more popular.
Behind the times
I never meant for this article to be a detailed review of all the web conferencing products out on the market, but decided to review a number of the more popular products to prove a point:
Customers want choice and they want a full-featured product set to present their content.
Right now, most web conferencing products focus the features you receive based on the number of people you want to attend. Then, the vendor makes some extra cash off you by charging fees for dial-in numbers or the convenience of calling the attendees.
Some real innovation needs to happen in this space and there is a lot of catch-up people need to make. Whiteboards, polls, and chat are not the only things people want. In an age where people can pay $10-$30/month and receive full suites of powerful productivity software, why are we paying $50-$90 for a single product that allows us to present audio and video? If we are going to pay these fees, we should demand more from these companies. For example:
- Sign-up pages that tie customer information directly into your CRM system, including external services like MailChimp.
- Make it easy to dial-in to a call.
- Allow people to decide what features and capabilities they want.
- Do not set arbitrary limits based on user scenarios.
- Create useful reports that will help meeting managers improve. Just a few ideas would include reports to show you how many people said they would attend, how many people actually attended, how many people minimized the application, and top topics of conversation in the chat window.
- Allow presenters to charge for the event without setting up payment gateways and custom signup pages.
- Provide special effects and unique features that allow presenters to really shine in their presentations.
Hopefully, the web conferencing market will see a blaze of new innovation, but so far, I am still seeking out the right product that helps me to create great presentations. Until then, I have moved to GoToMeeting for my training courses and OBS to LiveStream events.