Choosing a web conferencing solution can be quite a difficult task as it is a type of technology few people are familiar with so it is hard to know exactly what features you should be on the lookout for. Traditionally web and video conferencing is thought of to be slow, unreliable and complicated to use, but this is no longer the case. While businesses are still the main users of web conferencing systems, the technology has become cheap enough and easy enough to use for home users to get in on the action too. Many people use them to share family photos with distant relatives while having a chat, or to show them how to use a new software application.
Most of the services we have reviewed are aimed towards businesses, but there are plenty that won’t break the bank if you want to use them at home. Here, we take you through some of the different types of web conferencing solutions on offer and the features that they offer. Broadly speaking, web conferencing systems can be split into two categories: those which require a subscription and are used through a web site (hosted solutions), or those which large companies can install on their own infrastructure and run themselves (deployed solutions). Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which we will look at here.
Hosted solutions are the easiest web conferencing systems to use, and certainly the only type that home users will want to think about – unless you have some spare server hardware in the cupboard under the stairs! Generally, you pay a monthly fee to the company of your choice which gets you a conference room with a specified number of ‘seats’ depending on how much you are willing to pay. These types of solutions are suitable for home and business users alike as they don’t require any technical knowledge to set up or run. The range of features on offer depends on the service you pick, but generally you will be able to share your screen with other participants, swap files, control PowerPoint presentations and communicate in a variety of ways. Some will also let you take control of other participants’ computers and vice versa.
Although these solutions mostly run through a web browser, some will require that you download a small application that gets installed on your computer. Even the ones which run directly through a web browser use various different technologies to achieve the same effect, but this can affect the compatibility of the service. It is important to check exactly which features work on which platforms as some services will claim to be cross platform compatible, but for example, will only allow Mac users to join a conference and not share their screen. Some services don’t make it very clear exactly what they support and we would recommend talking to a sales advisor before parting with any cash.
Many companies that offer hosted solutions will also offer a range of professional services to go with them. These can be useful if you want to organise a special one off event or want a professional moderator for your conference. A consultant will usually work with you to set up your event, invite guests, run the event and then carry out any follow up work necessary. Even if you are confident with the technology, running a large scale event can be quite difficult so although these services cost extra they can be very useful.
Deployed solutions are really only an option for large enterprises. Instead of paying a monthly fee to a company who hosts the web conferencing service for you, you buy a combination of hardware and software that can be deployed within your own infrastructure to run the service yourself. Some companies just sell software, which you must install on your own servers and others supply the servers themselves with software pre-installed. Generally, the upfront cost will be high, but since you are running the service yourself there will be no extra monthly fees. However, as with any technology product you will likely have to hire consultants to work with your own IT staff to set up the solution and fix anything that goes wrong.
Deployed solutions are usually just used in the same way as a hosted solution – i.e through a web browser, the only difference being that you host the service yourself. They may offer more features though, and more configuration options to set up different rooms and user accounts. They will also likely integrate with many other products, especially any directory services – such as Active Directory – that your company may use. This makes them much more flexible than hosted solutions and you are free to use them as you wish.
Some of the deployed solutions we have looked at are based more around video conferencing than purely web conferencing. These are systems that work independently of your existing IT infrastructure and provide their own screens, cameras and software to use. This type of solutions is ideal for use in conference rooms where high quality video conferencing is required without the need for computers and shared desktops. Many different types of these solutions are available for different levels of budget.
There are some general factors which you should consider when choosing a web conferencing system, no matter whether you opt for a hosted or deployed solution. These are some of the things we looked at when reviewing the services and would be useful to bear in mind.
Although many of the services we looked at offer a very similar feature set, some are better at certain things than others. For example, some of the services offer full screen sharing and remote control facilities which are useful for fully interactive conferences, while others are better for one person delivering a presentation to a large audience. It’s best to think about exactly how you can see yourself using the service before jumping into a purchase.
Furthermore, many services offer registration and attendance managements tools. If you are hosting large scale sales presentations then these can prove invaluable to help you get in touch with potential clients, but if you just want to use the service for project meetings they probably won’t be as necessary.
Communications are obviously an essential part of any conference and different services offer different approaches to communicating. The best ones will offer a choice of different methods so that your guests can choose what suits them best, but some services limit you to one.
The most common communication method is to use voice over IP. This is the same way in which applications like Skype work and let your guests use a headset, or microphone and speakers attached to their computer to talk. The best part about it is that it costs you nothing because it runs over your internet connection, but if you have a slow connection you might not get very good quality sound.
Many services also offer a combined teleconferencing service with their web conferencing offering. This allows you and your guests to dial into a special teleconferencing number and talk over the phone as with any standard teleconferencing service. The best ones provide controls from within the web conference to control the audio conference (known as bridging) and also offer toll-free numbers for your guests to dial into.
Most services will also include simple text chat facilities in their service for those who don’t need to join in the audio conference.
Compatibility is a limiting factor when choosing a web conferencing service. Many services will only work with Windows based PCs, but more and more are opening up to Mac and Linux users too. Even with services which claim to be cross-platform compatible may not be entirely so. Often, the full functionality of the service is only available to Windows users, while Mac and Linux users can join conferences, but not access screen sharing or remote control facilities.
The different technologies used for implementation won’t make too much of a difference if you opt for a browser based service. Generally these will be either Java based or Flash based. With java applications your browser will download an application behind the scenes to run the service, but with Flash it will run straight from within the browser.
Security will be an issue for your conferences if you plan on discussing confidential material. Most services provide at least 128-bit SSL encryption on communications during meetings, but some still don’t. The best quality services provide even stronger encryption and many other security features, but 128-bit should be enough for most purposes. You should also check whether it is possible to password protect your meeting rooms as, amazingly, some services still don’t provide this basic level of security.
The Bottom Line
This guide should help you make a decision on which web conferencing service to go for. Bear in mind that the best deal might not always be the cheapest as you could end up with some unexpected costs popping up later on. Try and figure out what you want the service to be able to do and how you are going to use it before starting your search and things will be a lot easier. If in doubt many of the services offer free consultancies so that you can discuss your requirements with a professional in order to make the best decision. Our top ten list has some of the best hosted and deployed solutions on the market which makes it an excellent starting place for your search!