Microsoft Live Meeting 2005
Microsoft Live Meeting 2005 improves Microsoft's previous Web conferencing service by letting you start online meetings directly from within Office programs such as Word and Excel. In addition, Live Meeting now supports PowerPoint effects, including animations and transitions, for more dynamic presentations and provides broadcast (one-way) VoIP audio for training sessions, conference calls, and other large gatherings. The software's intuitive interface mimics Office conventions with the familiar Getting Started panels on the left, and menus and icons up top. Despite its upgrades, however, Live Meeting 2005 lacks a few tools you'll find in competing products, including videoconferencing and two-way VoIP audio. Live Meeting has an unfinished feel too. For instance, its Office add-in, slated for a June 2005 release, wasn't available for review. For high-end users, WebEx Meeting Center is a safer buy, for now anyway. Live Meeting 2003 users, however, should install the free upgrade this summer, once the service is completely finished. Setting up Live Meeting is simple and takes only a few minutes. Live Meeting presenters--those conducting a meeting--must download and install a small Windows client. Participants have the option of installing the client (via a link in an e-mail invitation) or running the browser-based Java client. The latter option is handy for non-Windows PCs or for corporate environments where installing your own desktop software is verboten. We found the Web client to be nimble and responsive, even when annotating a PowerPoint presentation.
Version 2005's interface is improved, albeit in subtle ways that become more apparent as you use the service. For instance, the new Resources window, which replaces the Presentation window in 2003, lets you upload any Windows document to the Live Meeting server (2003 was limited to PowerPoint files). We uploaded Acrobat, Word, Excel, and even WordPerfect files simply by dragging the file from the Desktop to the Live Meeting window. Also new is the Getting Started window, which lists links to Web-based help on such topics as sharing applications, managing participants, and so on. We'd like to see more interactive assistance, however, including wizards that step you through these tasks.
Despite the improvement, Live Meeting's interface falls short of Citrix GoToMeeting's, which has our favorite Web conferencing interface, featuring large, clearly labeled buttons that make it a snap to master basic tasks, such as handing off presenter duties to another participant.
Live Meeting 2005 is a high-end conferencing program priced to compete with WebEx Meeting Center and Macromedia Breeze. Microsoft Live meeting 2005 has the same pricing as the former 2003 version: A five-seat license, which allows up to five attendees per meeting, costs $375 per month. Microsoft also sells a five-seat Personal Edition for $14.99/month or $99/year, a package that limits you, however, to one individual as the meeting organizer. Both Breeze and WebEx offer five-user plans for $375, but only WebEx includes both two-way VoIP conferencing for audio and video at that price. (Breeze charges an extra $99/month for audio and video.)
Live Meeting's new tools are impressive. Unfortunately, one of the most intriguing--a Microsoft Office add-in toolbar that lets you start a meeting from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, and so on--won't be ready until June 2005. One clever application-sharing innovation (also found in Raindance Meeting Edition) is Live Meeting's ability to share only a portion of the screen (see screenshot). You can drag the sharing window around the screen to highlight, say, a portion of an Excel worksheet. And since the rest of the presenter's screen is grayed out, you'll always know what your audience is seeing. We found this feature well designed and easy to use.
Like its processor, Live Meeting 2005 works within Microsoft Outlook. You can send meeting invitations and launch sessions simply by clicking a button on an Outlook toolbar. One handy upgrade: you can now schedule a meeting while offline, and the invitation will be sent to an attendee once you're online again.
Version 2005 also lets you manage audioconference settings via the Live Meeting interface, but only if you use specific third-party audio providers, including BT, InterCall, and MCI. You can, for instance, have participants enter their phone numbers in a Live Meeting dialog box; the audio bridge will call them automatically. This approach is slightly simpler than having everyone phone in. Another approach would be to use a VoIP service, such as Skype, for free.
We were disappointed that Microsoft downplayed its videoconferencing capabilities in Live Meeting 2005. Redmond says its customers don't want it--video requires too much bandwidth and isn't essential for Web conferencing, they say--but we disagree. Face-to-face sessions are very important, particularly in sales meetings. Besides, even low- to medium-priced competitors such as Convoq and Raindance offer videoconferencing, and Live Meeting should, too.
Microsoft's technical support continues to impress us. Live Meeting users get free e-mail and telephone assistance, phone support hours are 24/7, and the quality of assistance is top-notch. For instance, our e-mail and phone queries regarding an e-mail glitch--specifically, we couldn't send invitations via Live Meeting--were acknowledged within minutes. Over two successive business days, Microsoft tech staff contacted us via e-mail and telephone. They helped us troubleshoot the problem, which ultimately resided on Microsoft's servers. We received e-mail once the glitch was corrected.
Most of Microsoft's Web conferencing competitors also provide free e-mail and phone support. Macromedia's plan, however, is the most limited: The Breeze five-user, $375-per-month package, for instance, allows just five tech support incidents per month.