Webcasting Software

Webcasting lets you give interactive presentations in multiple locations. We tested three options: one hardware, one software and one service-based. Find out which one's a star!

June 18, 2004

15 Min Read
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The products we reviewed let us broadcast video and audio of our presenter and display PowerPoint slides in a large, easy-to-read format. All three also support archiving for playback on demand using Internet Explorer, with no extra software or unusual plug-ins.

Production Requirements

On the production side, as long as you have a Real or Windows Media Services server running and a Web server, you're set. The presenter doesn't have to make many decisions on streaming settings, and the webcasting software automates the stream distribution. Once our IIS and streaming services were set up, we didn't need to touch them again. You can specify codecs and bit rate on a per-presentation basis: The Accordent and Sonic Foundry products let you save a stream in multiple bit rates, allowing for high- and low-bandwidth presentations. Actual bandwidth will depend on the video-encoding settings--PowerPoint slides and interactive content displays are generally not as bandwidth-intensive as video.

We used a Mini-DV camcorder, which can output live A/V, to capture video and audio. Our participants support any video or audio system your capture card supports: a house sound system for audio, for instance, or a television feed or VHS/DVD player for video.

The three vendors implement PowerPoint capture differently. Communicast requires you to upload the slides first, have them converted to image files, and then display and cycle through slides inside the Communicast presenter. If you're presenting to an in-person audience as well as webcasting, you must have a webcasting director cycling the webcast slides as the presenter does the same. Accordent's PresenterPro requires you to import slides before the presentation. You can let a webcast director cycle through slides, or use a PowerPoint add-in that cycles the webcast slide when the presenter cycles his. In either case, the webcast slides will be synchronized with the presentation. Mediasite has a VGA capture card. You can plug a laptop into the VGA port, or use a VGA splitter to use Mediasite and an overhead projector simultaneously. Mediasite recognizes and captures the slides automatically as they cycle, so there is no need to upload or convert slides before the event. We liked this best.None of the vendors have immediate plans to support PowerPoint animations or transitions. Although we've seen some horrid abuses of animation in presentations, being able to fade in text or animate a graph's data display can be effective.

Grading the Process

We scored products in four process-related areas: staging, production, post-production and management. We also considered each product's price. The staging score reflects ease of setting up a webcast, from conception until one second before broadcast. Sonic Foundry's Mediasite Live was easiest--just plug in a camera and laptop, and click the Record button.

The production process covers all aspects of making a live or recorded presentation, including recording options, client interfaces and interactive content capabilities, such as polls. PresenterPro offered the best client control; a Web designer can choose video and slide placements to create a client skin, or appearance.

Post-production refers to all editing and on-demand capabilities. PresenterPro has the best editor, with options to trim the ends of the presentation, as well as modify, remove or add PowerPoint slides after the presentation.

All three products' presentation-management functions were disappointing, because they lack role-based administration for creating or modifying upcoming events. At least Communicast provides some access control. The service can handle user name and password access control, and even collects and processes credit-card orders. Accordent lets you set up a list of user names and passwords on a per-presentation basis. Mediasite has no access control at all. You may implement some access control with Web server permissions and authentication.

Communicast's Web service charges on a per-user and per-minute basis. The other products are a one-time purchase. Of course, you must supply your own servers and bandwidth to host presentations with the Accordent and Sonic Foundry products. We gave Communicast the highest score for price, since the service handles your streaming needs with a low cost of entry. But this price advantage drops if you do frequent conferences, say, monthly hour-long conferences with 50 users.

All the products performed admirably. Accordent's package is best for organizations that expect to heavily customize content or display. We gave PresenterPro our Editor's Choice award for its post-production editing capabilities, access control and reasonable price. Companies looking for the simplest and most straightforward webcasting should consider Sonic Foundry's turnkey solution, while organizations that lack the bandwidth to host a webconference can safely consider Communicast.

Producing a sophisticated Web presentation that keeps your audience tuned in requires more options than most basic webcasting packages provide. Accordents' PresenterPro Enterprise Edition earned our Editor's Choice award by providing a broad range of options and post-production tools.PresenterPro has two software components: a management station and a video-encoder controller, which work with Apache and other PHP-based Web servers, IIS-based servers, and Real and Windows Media Services. We dedicated one computer to management and encoding, and put IIS with Windows Media Services software on a second machine to handle the Web and streaming services.

At the Windows-based management station, which comprises a presentation wizard, presentation manager and archive manager, you prepare presentations, control all the action and publish the results. The video encoder controller captures and encodes both video and audio streams with Windows Media or Real Encoder, while the Web and streaming servers store the final presentation for on-demand playback. Of the three competitors, only Accordent supports Real.

The presentation wizard, which lets you choose interface options and conference features, gave us better control over our presentation's skin than the other two products. From the wizard, we chose the skin and conference features and customized our title information. You also can create your own skins--something you cannot do with Communicast's and Sonic Foundry's products. Although you must code the skins manually, the program has some common sense built in. For example, the skins must be germane to the features of the presentation. If a skin doesn't have an "Ask a Question" button, you won't be able to use PresenterPro's Q&A feature.

Once we chose our presentation features, we imported the PowerPoint presentation and converted it to JPEG files (GIF is also an option). We then published the base HTML and graphic files to the Web server. PresentationPro lets you publish data to as many as six locations simultaneously. Mediasite uploads data to only one server. This process is unnecessary with Communicast. Once these tasks complete, we were done with the staging portion.

Just before recording the actual webcast, you open the presentation manager, which controls the presentation's beginning and end and the slide cycling. With the presentation manager, you can create interactive content, such as simple statements, survey forms and trivia questions, as well as images and Web page URLs. This material appears in the viewer's slide display or a separate window. Surveys can remain active after the presentation is finished, so on-demand users can still vote and participate. We found we needed a second person--a webcast director--to push out the interactive content, as the speaker was too busy presenting. The director can cycle the slides manually or use a PowerPoint add-in to synchronize with the presenter's computer. We wish the presentation manager had a remotely accessible Web front end, instead of requiring a Win32 app.Once you've created the presentation, the archive manager opens. Here you can trim off the start or end of the presentation, alter the slide time line, rearrange slides, delete slides or change chapter information. PresenterPro lacks a preview option, so we couldn't view our changes until after they were published. When we finished editing, we uploaded the presentation to a Web server using Windows File Sharing, but FTP is an option, too. With this package, we also could prepare a recorded presentation to be burned on CD-ROM. Accordent's product doesn't do the burning. Rather, it exports a directory containing the required HTML, graphic and video files, which can then be burned to CD.

PresenterPro's biggest shortcoming is its end-user client interface. The table of contents page, which lets you jump around the presentation, is just a gray window with text that doesn't even look hyperlinked. Furthermore, slide navigation doesn't cause the video to fast forward to that particular spot. And PresenterPro lacks a built-in presentation organization: You cannot organize multiple presentations into categories or directories. If you want to group presentation displays, you must code the Web pages yourself. The isn't a huge shortcoming, but we wish the organization were more automatic.

PresenterPro Enterprise Edition 5.1.3, $15,000. Accordent Technologies, (310) 374-7491. www.accordent.com

Sonic Foundry's hardware approach to webcasting has some advantages. Mediasite Live, a portable unit, is a PC in a briefcase, complete with LCD screen, full-size keyboard, optical mouse, cable storage area and a carrying handle. A presenter can bring this box into a room, record and leave, or attach it to a separate management server and do a live presentation. The management server is responsible for handing live presentation, interactive content and uploading presentations to the Web and streaming server.

The unit we tested is a fully self-contained, portable Windows XP computer with a 3-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 111 GB of disk space and special encoder and capture software. Sonic Foundry also makes a rackmount version. A camcorder or other live video/audio source can be plugged into the system's Osprey video card. Slides are captured automatically from a VGA source. You can plug in a laptop or use a VGA splitter/tap to display on a projector and the MediaLive machine simultaneously. The device automatically senses screen changes and pushes the new image as a slide. You can turn off the automatic cycling when you want manual control.With Mediasite, you're not limited to PowerPoint slides. You can use other presentation software, such as Open Office or Apple's Keynote, or a series of images on a Web site. Best of all, you can record offline presentations.

An administrator or the presenter can do staging, using the Windows application or the Web GUI. The speaker can select encoding bit rate, skin, presentation features and date and time of webcast. You also can create and assign categories to organize all your presentations. You could, for example, assign multiple speakers and categories to a presentation.

Although a director can log into the management Web site to push out interactive content, Mediasite doesn't provide many postproduction features. An event's titles and descriptions can be changed, as can the skin or speaker information. However, you can't trim the video or change the slides. If you're adventurous, you can edit the Windows Media file manually, but you must shift the hotpoints, or markers in the video file that signify a slide change or event, as well. The presentation is then uploaded to an IIS and Windows Media Services server for on-demand playback.

Mediasite's client interface works well. Users can view a list of presentations, grouped by category or speaker, read a short description and play any one on demand. While the presentation is playing, users can preview all the slides, jump to any slide's spot in the presentation or view a slide in full-size mode in a new window. Users cannot participate in polls during an on-demand playback, but they can see the results.

We had two big concerns about this product. First, there's the $25,000 price, which is for just one appliance. Second, we wanted some form of presentation access control. With the current setup, anyone could connect.Mediasite Live, $25,000. Sonic Foundry, (877) 783-7987. www.sonicfoundry.com

Communicast's Web-based presentation service provides a solution for companies that lack streaming servers and heavy bandwidth. If you make only a few presentations each year, it makes sense to subscribe to Communicast, which broadcasts from its own network operations center.

In the staging phase, the admin can upload slides to Communicast, which automatically converts them to JPEG files. Communicast also offers a good range of options for creating interactive content. Besides the conventional Q&A, picture, URL push and polls, Communicast offers a message-board mode, where users can brainstorm ideas. Communicast also offers a pro/con option, which lets users submit affirmatives and negatives to a proposed idea. The presenter can choose to broadcast all, some or none of the answers. Finally, a certifier option lets you create a multiple-choice, multiquestion test. As a Web service, Communicast has the best access control. The administrator who stages the presentation first sets up user registration. You can limit attendees, and if you want to charge users for access, Communicast can handle the credit-card billing. You can also set up a survey form, which consists of up to 10 short-answer questions.

The video and audio are captured through a Flash plug-in. If your presenter is busy speaking on a stage, you will need a second person to handle pushing out content to the online participants. The webcast admin is given a list of the slides and interactive content. Slides are not pushed to the audience until the admin clicks on one. In fact, some of Communicast's more advanced collaboration features suggest this product is a better fit for off-site interactive meetings than presentations. For example, only Communicast offers whiteboard capabilities. You can create colored arrows, lines, geometric shapes and overlay text on a white backboard. Questions and answers are sent in an e-mail-type interface; however, the viewers receive no indication that a new message has arrived. After the conference has ended, the administrator can see who logged in, the results of interactive content and all the Q&A messages.

At Communicast, replaying is still in its infancy. We had to alert Communicast if we wanted to record the presentation. However, we got a preview of a late-alpha version of "one-click archiving," slated for release by print time. With this feature, our entire presentation was recorded, and could be played back on demand. But there was no fast-forward or rewind, only pause and begin again. Communicast also offers some consulting with its services, such as training and post-event debriefings.Communicast's per-user, per-minute pricing structure makes it economical for companies that plan to do only a handful of webcasts. A single, hourlong webcast, with 10 participants, for example, would cost $594 ($0.99 per minute, per user). By the time you reach a dozen yearly webcasts with 50 participants, the $14,040 fee ($0.39 per minute, per user) falls into the range of Accordent's and Sonic Foundry's prices, even though the minutes-per-user figure drops substantially. Keep in mind that Communicast's pricing includes bandwidth costs. For webcasts with a large number of participants, Communicast may still be cheaper when you factor in renting or purchasing additional bandwidth from your ISP or a content-delivery service.

Communicast 3.0, priced by the minute, per participant starting at $0.29 per minute, per participant. Communicast, (800) 446-2071, (703) 435-8033. www.communicast.com

MICHAEL J. DEMARIA is an associate technology editor based at NETWORK COMPUTING's Syracuse University's Real-World Labs. Write to him at [email protected].

CD-ROM and DVD-ROM distribution will get your PowerPoint presentation out there, but it won't get you an immediate response. Webcasting lets you make a live connection with your audience. And it's interactive: Participants can have a dialogue with the presenter and even respond to real-time polls.

We tested three webcasting products--one hardware-based, one software-based and one service provider. Accordent Technologies' PresenterPro Enterprise Edition software took our Editor's Choice award for its post-production editing capabilities, access control and reasonable price. However, we would feel comfortable recommending the other two products, Communicast, a Web service, and Sonic Foundry's Mediasite Live appliance, based on users' needs. Communicast's pricing structure, in particular, may make sense for companies that need to do only infrequent webcasts.We used two servers in our testbed: A 1.4-GHz Pentium 3 computer with 1 GB of RAM was our Web and streaming-media server, and a Dell PowerEdge 1650 with a 1.14-GHz Pentium 3 and 2 GB of RAM was used for video encoding and webcast management.

We ran Microsoft Windows 2000 Server SP4 with IIS and Windows Media Services enabled on the Web and streaming-media server. The second server ran Windows 2000 Advanced Server SP4. We used an Osprey 540 video-capture card and a Panasonic PV-DV952D digital camera. Our clients ran Windows 2000 Workstation with IE 6. Our camera, a standard consumer-class mini-DV unit, had Firewire, S-Video and RCA A/V outputs. We used Firewire and RCA when applicable.

We filmed one presenter in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs and included a 26-slide PowerPoint presentation filled with text and graphics in various sizes. We used a combination of audio and visual hand signals to note when a change-slide event occurred to verify video/PowerPoint synchronization.

R E V I E WWebcasting

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