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Web Conference Bakeoff

Submitted by Tom Peters on April 5, 2010 - 9:41am

Deciding on a web conferencing service to use for your library or library-related organization is a little like deciding on a new ILS, only writ small.  There are lots of features and systems out there, but the financial stakes are much smaller for a web conferencing service than for an ILS.  I’ve been using web conferencing software for over six years, but recently I had the opportunity to engage in an informal, unplanned “bake-off” between two web conferencing services, comparing how they performed in a real-life situation.

Here’s how this all came to pass. I was involved in planning for the “Future is Now:  Libraries and Museums in Virtual Worlds” conference, which was co-organized by the ALA VCL MIG (Virtual Communities and Libraries, Member Initiative Group), the ACRL Virtual Worlds Working Group, the Alliance Library Systems, and TAP Information Services, the small company that I operate as SOO (Sole Operating Officer).  Early in the conference planning phase we decided to hold this conference both in Second Life and online via OPAL, a collaborative web conferencing service I manage.  We wanted to offer the OPAL option so that attendees did not feel that they needed to be in Second Life in order to participate in the conference.  As the dates for the conference drew near, I decided to offer attendees two web conferencing platforms.  One was tcConference from Talking Communities, which I have been using for six years, and the other was Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, which I had used off-and-on as a participant in online events for years, but was just learning to use as an online event coordinator. 

On the days of the conference, I was ensconced in my office.  On one computer I (or my avatar) was in Second Life (SL).  On my other computer I was in both tcConference and Adobe Connect, pulling in the audio stream from SL and advancing the slides being presented by the various speakers.  Imagine, if you will, a mad organist switching from one keyboard to another hundreds of times over the course of the day.

During the conference, as well as during the days leading up to and following the conference, I was able to make or confirm some observations about the performance of these two web conferencing systems.

  • VoIP:  Voice-over-IP basically worked equally well on these two web conferencing platforms.  Lag time is similarly short on a PC running Windows XP and a DSL Internet connection.  Because I was in both web conferencing systems for hours on end, I noticed that the overall sound quality of the VoIP seemed to deteriorate after I had been in these online rooms for hours.  Maybe it would be good to periodically exit out of, then re-enter, these online rooms in order to clean out the audio pipes, which reminds me of my father’s belief in the Sixties that it was a good practice to take the family station wagon out on the highway every week or so to “clean out the cobwebs” in the engine. 

  • Slides:  Presentation slides generally cause more problems in virtual worlds and in web conferencing online rooms than they do in brick-and-mortar locations.  My general advice to any presenter using slides in an online or virtual world presentation is to keep the slides simple, the fonts large, and the sizes of the embedded image files small.  When I converted all of the slide sets for the conference, I noticed lots of little quirks, shifts, and resizings.  Slides generally loaded quicker in Adobe Connect than in tcConference, but more than once I noticed that a particular slide was displaying better in tcConference than in Adobe Connect.  The big downside to displaying slides in tcConference is that Mac users often experience problems seeing them at either, both live online and later in the recorded sessions. 

  • Recording:  Speaking of recording, both systems shine, but each in different ways.  As much as I like the thrill and unpredictability of live online events (when I use my imagination, it reminds me of the early days of live television), the real power and reach are in the recordings.  Adobe Connect recordings are housed by default on Adobe’s servers, which makes creating a conference archive a snap.  However, if I’m reading the documentation correctly, if I ever want to export those recordings, it will take me as long to do so as the length of the recordings!  With tcConference, the default location for a recording is your local hard drive, which gives you much more control and a sense of ownership.  It takes longer to upload the tcConf recordings to a server to create a conference archive.  It’s easier to understand the components of a tcConfaudiorecording, which is in MP3 format, and thus ready for podcasting. 

  • Accessibility:  When it comes to computing in general and web conferencing in particular, accessibility is a complex topic.  First, there are issues regarding the vision, hearing, and motor skills of individuals.  Then there are issues about knowledge regarding computing and networking.  Hardware and software components affect the overall accessibility of any web conferencing system, as well.  For instance, Adobe Connect seems to work better for Mac users than does tcConf, but tcConference seems to be much more accessible to blind and low-vision users than is Adobe Connect.  In fact, of all the web conferencing software on the market, tcConference and Elluminate seem to be the top two in terms of accessibility to blind and low-vision users. 

  • Support:  Talking Communities is a small company.  I think I know all the employees there on a first-name basis.  I know in which time zone each lives, if not also the exact town.  The first time I contacted Adobe Connect for tech support, I got a service agent in some call center.  It seemed that English was a second language for him, and I couldn’t even tell where in the world he was.  India?  Central America?  I couldn’t tell.  All call center service reps I’ve ever had conversations with seem to have received the same basic training:  First, apologize.  Second, as the user (me) describes the problem, be sure to repeat almost verbatim the problem they are describing to you.  Third, try to sell them something. 

In the best of all possible web conferencing worlds, there would be one system that incorporated the best elements of these two systems, with a few goodies from other systems thrown in for good measure.  Alas, we’re still in the good-but-not-ideal phase of development, which means that I’ll probably continue using both tcConference and Adobe Connect for the foreseeable future.