Although at $75 per seat, per month, WebEx Meeting Center seems expensive, it makes sense for cost-cutting businesses determined to trim travel expenses. This slick, Web-based conferencing service allows you to hold browser-based meetings in which you share applications and draw on an interactive whiteboard. For that just-like-being-there experience, WebEx provides multipoint video for viewing up to four camera images at once, and Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony that supports full-duplex conversations that won't tie up your office phone lines. Or, if you prefer to use a more stable, less lag-prone landline, WebEx sets up toll-free conference calls for your meetings. You can schedule and send WebEx Meeting Center meeting invitations from within Microsoft Outlook or start a conference simply by clicking a button from within Microsoft Office or Yahoo Business Messenger. Of course, WebEx isn't perfect; it's difficult to learn, and video images froze inexplicably in our tests. With a little practice, however, WebEx Meeting Center can be an effective, money-saving alternative to the face-to-face conference. WebEx Meeting Center isn't desktop software. Rather, it's a collection of Web-based conferencing features that let you conduct meetings via your browser--all wrapped into a single service. WebEx guarantees data integrity, privacy, and high-speed performance by routing data packets (that is, your meeting) off of the public Internet and onto WebEx's secure network. All you need to do to make it happen is download and install a small plug-in during setup, a task that takes just a few minutes for users with broadband connections.
This system is nearly foolproof, with one caveat: Each data packet begins and ends its journey via each meeting participant's ISP. So if your ISP or any attendee's ISP is experiencing severe congestion, session performance, particularly bandwidth-hogging video and audio, can suffer. In our tests, we found session speed to be quite good, with fraction-of-a-second delays when we controlled programs remotely.
Once you purchase seats at the WebEx table, you can set up your company's meeting center in one of two ways. You can purchase the WebEx Express package, which lets you set up a generic center yourself. If you'd prefer a customized look and functionality--say, one with your company logo, links to your Web site, or customized applications--WebEx will build one for you, but for a fee, anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the complexity of the project. Ouch!
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WebEx's scheduler steps you through the process of setting up a meeting. Participants receive an e-mail invitation before the session begins.
Meeting Center provides several ways to schedule and initiate a conference. One option is to log on to your company's Web site and complete a multistep scheduling process: setting a meeting's start and stop times, inviting participants, and selecting whether the meeting is a one-time or a recurring event. By downloading additional plug-ins, you can initial and schedule meetings, as well as share files and applications, from within Microsoft Office and Outlook.
The WebEx Meeting Manager interface is divided into three portions. The largest chunk, roughly two-thirds of the screen, is a blank window used for displaying documents, presentations, and the WebEx whiteboard. Drop-down menus provide fast access to meeting settings, such as the ability to change participants' privileges and allow them to annotate documents. A smaller box in the upper-right corner lists the names of meeting participants, and a similar box below it is used for online chat or note taking.
The Meeting Manager is nicely laid out, but don't expect to master it immediately. We stumbled in our initial attempts to share applications and change the video settings. You'll need at least an hour's worth of practice before conducting WebEx meetings with clients. Also, note that the application sharing interface is somewhat clunky. In our tests, the cursor often vanished off the screen, making it difficult to highlight text or write in the margins of a Microsoft Word document. WebEx Meeting Center offers a robust assortment of conferencing tools, including application- and document-sharing functions, VoIP telephony--a.k.a. Internet calling--that transmits audio over your Net connection, and multipoint video that lets you view up to four thumbnail Web camera images at once. It's no bargain, however, with prices starting at $75 per port, per month for unlimited use. (A port is like a seat at the conference table.) A 20-person company could share five ports, for instance, and have five people meeting via WebEx at one time, including any outside attendees.
Meeting Center's new video tools are designed to be plug-and-play. If you have a Web camera connected to your USB port, for instance, WebEx automatically activates the camera and displays your thumbnail image in the upper-right corner (you must click the Video tab to see it). We couldn't figure out how to turn on multipoint video, which allows you to view up to four video images of meeting participants at once. But it turns out, our test site's functionality is different from a normal WebEx setup, which wouldn't ask you to make this decision. A simple call to WebEx tech support solved the problem--we simply needed to select Multi-point from the Meeting Options menu.
Presentations and shared documents are the heart of most business meetings, and WebEx delivers plenty of ways to display this information. As the host of a meeting, you can run conventional PowerPoint slide shows in a Meeting Center window or load a file--an Excel spreadsheet, for instance--and allow the other participants to either annotate comments or edit the original file. The whiteboard space is handy for jotting notes and pictures and works much like a traditional office whiteboard, only without the awful ink smell. Again, however, you'll need to spend some time with these tools; practice is crucial before you impose a WebEx session on a new client.
Verbal communication, of course, is essential, too. If WebEx's VoIP audio option isn't up your alley or if you simply don't have a headset to attach to your PC, each participant can use a landline phone to chat, toll-free, via conference call (WebEx supplies the phone number, which appears onscreen before the session starts, or it can work with your in-house conferencing provider). We like the fact that WebEx supplies the conference number, which greatly simplifies the chore of setting up the audio portion of the meeting.
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WebEx Meeting Center's annotation tool lets you or a meeting attendee mark up a Word document. The cursor frequently disappeared onscreen in our tests, unfortunately.
The online support tools are very good. You'll find a comprehensive user guide with an interface very similar to that of a Windows help file, as well as FAQs with setup and usage advice. E-mail support is available as well.
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WebEx provides comprehensive online support for WebEx Meeting Center, including a user guide that mimics the familiar interface of a Windows help file.