Astound promises a better way to meet

Web conferencing and collaboration quickly is becoming as pervasive as e-mail. And as with e-mail services, you can find a variety of conferencing ASPs (application service providers), some of which even offer free meetings for small groups.

Still, as enterprises look at these tools to reduce travel costs, introduce distance learning and improve technical support, they are uncovering hidden costs. For example, you may need to spend a great deal for conference calls to augment your on-line slide presentations.

Astound Inc.’s Conference Center 2.0 matches the features of competitive packages, such as PlaceWare Inc.’s Conference Center 2000, including quick meeting setup and a complementary chat feature. However, Astound’s product can be a better choice for several reasons. By using VOIP (voice over IP), Astound eliminates the considerable costs of conference calls. Furthermore, the system’s small Java client downloads faster compared with competing products, and the way slides are encoded, using DHTML (Dynamic HTML) is more efficient.

The beta version of the Astound Conference Center 3.0 service that I tested introduces a more streamlined user interface plus new interactive features, such as Q&A sessions with presenters and a whiteboard. If some small bugs are fixed and the whiteboard feature is made functional, it looks as if Astound Conference Center 3.0 will be an excellent Web conferencing solution. (For a close look at competitor PlaceWare, see “Global meetings made easier,”

Highly accessible

I tested the hosted version of Conference Center 3.0; the software, which runs on Windows NT 4.0 Server with Internet Information Server and Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server 6.5, is also available for installing in-house. The two basic parts, Conference Management System and Conference and Learning Server, can be accessed with any Java-capable Web browser.

Compared with that of Version 2.0, the redesigned Management System’s interface is much easier to navigate and to use, thanks to a Microsoft Outlook-style shortcut bar and step-by-step help. For example, when scheduling a conference, a wizard guides you through selecting a presentation, determining the time, and choosing options, such as a post-event survey. Then, the revised e-mail function lets you notify users of the event via customized distribution lists.

I was pleased with the remaining parts of Conference Center 3.0. For instance, uploading and converting a graphic-laden 5MB PowerPoint presentation took just a few minutes via a LAN connection.

Client thin but not weak

When joining a conference, participants simply enter the conference number and an optional password as they would when using PlaceWare or other meeting services. But unlike competitors’ clients, Conference Center’s Java client is only about 120KB, so even users connected over dial-up lines are up and running in under a minute. Furthermore, I found Conference Center 3.0’s client applications to be designed better than others I’ve used. The presenter, for example, can get at all conference commands from a single palette, instead of having to open multiple windows. Furthermore, several presenters can participate simultaneously, just as in a face-to-face meeting.

Whereas competing services often convert slides to static graphics, Conference Center turns them into DHTML pages. Therefore, most special effects, such as bullet reveals or animation, are preserved without the need to deliver fat pages. In addition, Astound downloads upcoming slides to viewers’ systems while the current slide is being discussed. As a result, moving from slide to slide was almost instantaneous.

Conference Center 3.0’s other interactive functions are equally notable. From the presentation menu, I easily entered a URL and toured the Web in real time for my audience. In addition, the Application Sharing function let me show meeting participants any application running on my desktop. You may also insert ad hoc polls into presentations.

Version 3.0 adds a Q&A feature, which allows members of large audiences to interact with presenters while participating in multiple private chat sessions. In addition, a new palette lets the presenter gather information about the audience, such as who is signed in. The new whiteboard feature wasn’t active in the beta version I tested, but company representatives indicated the feature would have some unique capabilities, such as drawing objects tailored to specific industries.

To deliver the live speech that accompanies a presentation, the presenter’s audio is encoded (from a phone call) in real time and then delivered over the IP connection using RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. Both audio and video streams are automatically synchronized with other presentation content and archived for on-demand playback.

Astound Conference Center 3.0 holds a lot of promise. The majority of conferencing and collaboration capabilities worked – and very well – in the beta. The service is priced below those of several competitors while offering more capabilities in several areas, including cost-saving VOIP support. This should push Astound Conference Center to the top of your Web conferencing list.

Heck ([email protected]) is a contributing editor at InfoWorld and is manager of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Penn.

Review box:

Conference Center 3.0, beta

Price: Service costs US$300 per seat; one-time conferences can be hosted for US$15 per person

Platform: Any version 4.0 or later Web browser

Supplier: Astound Inc.

Pros: VOIP and video over IP capability; converts presentations into efficient DHTML pages while preserving slide builds; uses HTTP protocol for firewall transparency; public and private chat

Cons: Whiteboard feature not functional in beta

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