John Dix: Web conferencing without confusion

Judging by WebEx Communication Inc.’s third-quarter results, people are taking to Web conferencing in a big way. Sales jumped 66 per cent to US$36.8 million compared with the same quarter last year. But even though WebEx has captured a daunting 57 per cent share of the Web conferencing market, competitors are still out there trying to improve on the concept.

One of those companies is PlaceWare Inc. ( A big advantage PlaceWare offers over WebEx is attendees can participate in meetings without downloading client software; anyone with a browser can log on.

PlaceWare customers have the option of uploading their presentations to a PlaceWare server or sharing local applications using a PlaceWare frame that can be opened onscreen and simply stretched around the content to be shared.

The latter is slick for spur-of-the-moment changes in a meeting, but the former offers the benefit of 1) safeguarding against your laptop blowing up in the middle of a presentation, and 2) added security: Uploaded files are encrypted and downloaded to attendees with decryption keys that are destroyed after the meeting, making it difficult to find residual meeting data. PlaceWare can support meetings with up to 2,500 attendees.

Unfortunately the PlaceWare user interface is not as user-friendly as those from WebEx and some other competitors. The company says it will overhaul the interface this month. You can try PlaceWare free for 15 days.

Another company trying to corral Web conferencing share is eDial Inc. (, which is selling a server that lets companies host their own audio and Web conferences. The SIP-based conferencing server has a built-in Web server and ties into your PBX. Employees use a browser-based interface to set up audio or Web-based conference calls. Like PlaceWare, no additional software is needed on the client. Unlike PlaceWare, you have to upload your PowerPoint, Word and Excel files to the server to share them.

The system’s primary appeal is its low cost. EDial boxes range in price from US$28,000 for 48 ports to US$78,000 for 96 ports. Given that Web conferencing costs 35 cents to 45 cents per minute when you pay per meeting, that cost can be justified pretty quickly. EDial doesn’t support collaborative environments. The company says it will leave that to WebEx.

Both tools have their advantages and are worthy of a look, but I’d wait for the new user interface from PlaceWare before seriously considering that one.

Dix is editor-in-chief for Network World (U.S.). He can be reached at [email protected].

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