In July I decided to start using webinars to interact with the users of our Scrum tool – the Banana Scrum. I also started to use webinars to broadcast seminars of the Polish Scrum Group.

Obviously, I needed a webinar solution to do this. Choosing which one of the many webinar/web meeting platforms available to use turned out to be quite a process. I share it here to help others who may have similar needs.

My requirements were pretty simple (or so I thought):

  • good for both demos (showing how to click around Banana Scrum) and presentations with traditional narrated slides (for the Scrum group),
  • easy to use for both presenter and participants,
  • recordings of good quality, preferably editable with standard tools, for subsequent posting on the pages,
  • event management (registration form, sending people e-mails with calendar attachments, links etc.),
  • cheap.

All in all I’ve looked at following platforms:
- Cisco’s WebEx,
- DimDim,
- Microsoft’s LiveMeeting,
- Cytrix’s GoToWebinar.com,
- Adobe Connect Pro.

I already evaluated WebEx back in 2006. Back then I even signed up for a paid account and had major problems with it (it didn’t work on a Mac, poor sound quality, didn’t have dial-up lines in CEE etc.). Since then it is said to have been improved technically a lot – the problem is it is way too pricey for a single host of small events (<100) like me. After looking at the prices it I didn't even bother to register for a demo.

I also looked at Dim Dim briefly. I even registered for a free demo, but the presenter UI hanged twice and I did get 500 errors when trying to access meeting organizing panel a couple of times I gave up on them. I didn’t even run real webinars on it – didn’t want to fight with technical problems while having real participants on line. So Dim Dim is a nice name but it needs a lot of improvement – as of now it is technically not reliable enough to be even considered.

Finally, I did sign up for free trials of Citrix’s GoToWebinar and Microsoft’s Live Meeting and I’ve run a couple of real webinars using each.

The main difference between the two is that GoToWebinar is a simple screen share, while Live Meeting allows also content (PowerPoint presentations, pdfs, images) to be pre-uploaded on the site before the webinar. The uploaded content is then processed by Live Meeting servers, scaled and (I think) pre-downloaded and cached on the client.

The effect is very good – as a presenter I can switch slides back and forth, and with almost no delay they switch on attendees’ computers without any loss of quality etc. And if I need to demo something I still have the option to share my screen or just one window etc. Sound quality was also very good and while files produced when recording were huge they could be easily processed with various free tools.

What I liked about GoToWebinar was the overall simplicity of the UI of both the site and the presenter toolkit. You can pretty much start using it within five minutes without reading manuals or watching training videos.

The Live Meeting’s admin UI is so ugly and unintuitive it reminds me of the very early web apps from late nineties. It is not easy to use all the power Live Meeting has with its horrible UI. In contrast, with GoToWebinar’s few features everything is simple and easy to set up. I think that despite Live Meeting’s technical superiority GoToWebinar would have won this contest if not for the price.

GoToWebinar is much more expensive than Live Meeting, even taking into account that you have to purchase a minimum of five Live Meeting accounts. Those five Live Meeting accounts still cost less than one GoToWebinar account. And all of this provided you won’t exceed 100 people on your event, if you do GoToWebinar pricing goes off the scale into thousands of USD. I don’t think that just having a slicker UI warrants charging such premium prices, especially considering the very limited feature set of Citrix’s solution.

So, I’ve almost purchased Live Meeting subscription, but then I discovered a huge problem with it which I should have expected from the start: it works only with MS Windows, even on the client side. There is a Java-based web client, but it doesn’t provide audio on a Mac and doesn’t run at all on Linux – so I don’t even why Microsoft bothers with developing it.

Of course, this is normal for Microsoft (they assume everyone uses Windows), but has proven to be a huge problem for me as I run into complaints from Mac and Linux users after the very first webinar I hosted using trial Live Meeting account.

Enter Adobe Connect Pro. Based on Flash it works on all platforms where Flash does, so it solves that problem. It also offers a quite rich feature set – screen sharing, pre-uploaded content & presentations, webcams, chats, live polls, breakout rooms etc. It has no meeting management at the price level I was looking at (less than $100/month), but this can be easily done with simple Google Spreadsheets forms or other tools.

It takes a while to get used to the Adobe Connect Pro’s presenter UI though, where “templates” serve the purpose of changing the screen layout for participants. Also, because of the way the presenter display is structured it is not easy to present from a device with a small screen – like one of those smaller laptops or netbooks. At least a 15″ screen is needed to run the show with any comfort.

Where I run into problems with Adobe was when I finally decided to purchase a subscription. The tool does propose a competitively priced plan ($45 / month) – the problem was it didn’t say anywhere how many meeting participants this plan allows. During my demo period I filled in their “contact me” form twice, but no one ever reached out to me – maybe because I’m not located in the US. Finally, with my webinar approaching fast, I called the local Adobe help line – there I spent about 20 minutes talking to a lady who promised to find out for me how many participants I do get for my $45. Finally I did get that information on the next day via e-mail, but it was already past my scheduled webinar which I had to run with… GoToWebinar (again, Linux users complained, but at least Mac fans were happy!).

To wrap it up: I ended up choosing Adobe’s solution. It offers best feature set for the price at my intended audience size (less than 100 people) and has no compatibility problems of other solutions. High marks for GoToWebinar/GoToMeeting for simplicity but their pricing is too high. If I wouldn’t have to support Mac and Linux users I would probably stick with MS Live Meeting – most powerful of them all, despite its ugly looks.

Updated on 2010-12-08: In the end it turns out I can’t buy Adobe Connect Pro – the competitive price they offer – $45 – is only available in the US and Canada. No way to purchase it on-line from Poland. So for now I keep on using the GoToWebinar.com which doesn’t treat me as a second class customer just because I happen to live outside of the US.