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Dimdim: A good, free, open source Webex competitor (invites!)

Look out Webex and GoToMeeting, the open source hammer is about to put the whammy down on you.

Since I first wrote about it in September, I've been eagerly awaiting the free, open-source Dimdim, a direct competitor to the arrogant old commercial applications Webex and GoToMeeting, as well as upstarts such as Vyew and Webhuddle. I finally got a demo of this important new application, which goes into public beta this week. We have exclusive invitations to the closed beta right now if you want to jump in ahead of to the end of the story for access.

When Josh and I first fired up the product last week, we both walked away confused. It looked as if it did a lot, but simple things slowed us down. I could send him a stream from my Webcam, for example, but he couldn't send me his. The PowerPoint presentation-sharing feature showed a smaller-than-expected image on Josh's machine. And where the heck was the End Conference button? There are user interface bits of Dimdim everywhere, such as the dashboard of an over-optioned Citroen.

Mostly the interface is scattered all over the place, so this little wizard is a big help.

However, over the weekend--while not in so much of a rush--I had some time to explore the product a bit more and it impressed me with its capabilities and the technology. I found the End button, too.

Setting up a meeting in Dimdim is very easy. You can kick off a meeting immediately or schedule it for later (including recurring meetings). I didn't find a way to load up a future meeting with resources (PowerPoints, PDFs, and Web URLs) though. It's easy enough to bring these items into a meeting once it's in progress, but doing the preparation ahead of time would make things look better to the participants.

The product lets you conduct online slide shows using PowerPoints and PDFs. You can annotate as you go and let users mark up, too. You can also work on a shared, multipage whiteboard. Or you can share your screen, which is useful for demos.

There are a lot of ways to interact with your viewers. You can send them Webcam video and audio (or make it a two-way conference if you like), chat with all attendees, or send private instant messages to individuals. I didn't see polling, quiz, or hand-raise features, though. I also expected an integrated way to set up a conference bridge over the phone, but didn't find that option.

One big benefit of this product is that viewers of a presentation do not have to download or install any applications, plug-ins, ActiveX controls, or Java giblets. That is sure to please viewers like me who don't like junking up their system just so they can get pitched.

The conference host can control what people see as well as what they can say. (click to enlarge)

However, at the moment the user interface itself is rather slow to respond to inputs. Also, the company neither guarantees speed nor high-quality audio or video transmission on this free service. If you pay for the professional version ($99 a year per presenter) or the enterprise edition (which you can install on your own servers), you can control the quality of service and get support from Dimdim. I do worry that free users will not be inclined to throw money at the product if they don't have a great experience to begin with.

So the product review summary is this: Dimdim is a very strong Web conferencing tool with a price you can't beat. It's definitely good enough to make one reconsider renewing a Webex contract.

But wait, there's more. As I said at the top of this story, Dimdim is open source. That means that it could become not just a Web meeting application, but a platform for real-time communications. For example, CEO DD Ganguly said, the Dimdim developer community is working on modules to add widgets to the service, support Open Social, improve chat, add presence, integrate better with e-mail, support documents (Google Docs?), and work on mobile devices. The open and free nature of the product means that other developers could patch their ideas into it in ways you'd never see happening on Webex. That's the potential, anyway. We'll see if the product gets enough traction to attract a vibrant developer community.

I recommend trying Dimdim. To get on before the application goes into open beta on April 10, visit here. There are only 1,000 invites set aside for Webware readers, so don't dawdle.