Cisco WebEx has its glitches but here’s how it could help your business

Online conferencing takes many forms: It can mean sharing your Mac’s screen; presenting files stored on your Mac or on a service’s Web site; teleconferencing; videoconferencing; even simple multiparty text chats. Unlike most of its competitors, WebEx Meeting Center offers all of these tools, making it an appealing choice for small and large businesses.WebEx costs $49 a month. For that, you can host an unlimited number of meetings, with up to 25 participants in each. If you don’t think you’ll hit that $49 threshold, you can pay as you go for $.33 per minute per participant. Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) also has options to meet with up to 100 people; you’ll have to contact the company directly to get the details on those.

Once you’ve signed up, you can schedule meetings in advance on the WebEx Web site or, with a single click, launch one immediately. The first time you host a meeting, WebEx will download and install a helper application that runs outside your browser; that takes about thirty seconds.

Participants join the meeting by either clicking a URL you send them or visiting the WebEx site and entering a meeting number. They’ll connect quickly; as with hosts, WebEx will download and install its helper tool.

Once you’ve set up a meeting, participants can connect in four ways: via phone, WebEx’s own built-in VoIP tools, videoconferencing, and built-in text chat. Conveniently, WebEx can call participants’ phones, if you wish, or they can dial into a temporary long-distance or toll-free number. (Toll-free fees start at $.15 a minute per participant.) Audio from VoIP and regular calls gets pooled together in one audio stream, you can see up to six other participants’ Webcams at once, and everyone can text chat within the WebEx tool.

Phone and VoIP calls come through clearly. If you’re videoconferencing, quality maxes out at 15 frames per second; it looks fine when people aren’t moving, but it might not be good enough for live presentations As host, you can record the audio and presentation from a meeting for later playback online.

Screen- and file-sharingAs the host, you can also share your screen–either the whole thing or just a single application window. You can also let participants control your Mac remotely. Screen-sharing works well to show off information in native applications, however, the frame-rate feels slow. Don’t expect Keynote animations to appear clearly, for example; more static applications work best.

You can also share specific files, which are uploaded to WebEx’s servers. WebEx displays PDFs, images, and QuickTime movies in their native formats. Documents from Word, PowerPoint, and some other apps are converted to PDFs. Those PDFs usually look good enough, but not always as good as the originals. It’s too bad you can’t just present the original files from your own system, as you can with some other conferencing services.

WebEx does distribute videos directly from your Mac to your meeting guests. That can take several minutes to finish, depending on the size of the file, and that lag can interrupt the flow of a meeting. (Some other services, such as Fuze Meeting (Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice), upload videos to their own servers and play them from there.) WebEx can optionally upload videos in the background while you show other slides. Once transferred, movies play on participants’ computers, so they look just like the original.WebEx has free iPhone and iPad apps that let you connect to conferences from anywhere. The iPhone version includes most of the important features, including the ability to schedule and start meetings. The iPad is an attendee-only device, but it can participate via VoIP. While not as complete as the Mac software, the apps are good enough to help you if stranded without a laptop.

WebEx’s interface is for the most part thoughtful, with only a handful of mistakes. A polling tool gathers live feedback from participants; WebEx discreetly puts it in a corner of the screen. An icon shows who is currently speaking, so you can identify participants. On smaller screens (such as my 1280 by 800-pixel MacBook), the main window collapses to show only two items–the participants, chat window, videoconference, your notes, or a live poll–at the same time; on a bigger screen, you can view three.

WebEx uses 128-bit SSL encryption to keep your conferences confidential. Enterprise users can get even more security; Cisco sells additional hardware and software that let big companies run meetings entirely within their intranets.

Macworld’s buying advice

WebEx Meeting Center has its glitches. But by offering so many conferencing tools–including videoconferencing for up to six people at a time and screen-sharing–it ‘s one of your best Web conferencing options.

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