Review: WebEx and GoToMeeting meet their match

Adobe Connect and Zoom lead six mostly stellar Web conferencing services for desktops and mobile devices

Review: WebEx and GoToMeeting meet their match
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At a Glance
  • Zoom Video Communications Zoom

  • NetDev Drum ShareAnywhere

  • LogMeIn Join.me

  • Citrix GoToMeeting

  • Cisco WebEx

  • Adobe Systems Adobe Connect

Thomas Friedman famously announced that the world is flat in his 2005 book of that name; he was writing about globalization. In Friedman's view, VoIP, file sharing, and wireless were the "steroids" that have accelerated the flattening of global commerce. Today I'd add video over Internet, which has become more and more prevalent as bandwidth has improved.

The two leaders in business Web conferencing are Cisco WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting. Other products in the field include Adobe Connect, Drum ShareAnywhere, Join.me, and Zoom. Of course, I’m leaving a few out, in at least one case as a kindness to the vendor. (They hate it when I leave them out; they really hate it when I tear their product to shreds.)

Some businesses use consumer products for voice and video over the Internet. Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Google Voice (no video) are three I've used extensively. While these can be useful, they don’t quite meet the criteria for business-grade Web conferencing products.

These higher-end products are expected to simultaneously display desktop shares, video, and audio. They have high reliability and quality. They integrate with common desktop software, and they work with mobile devices. They are also expected to handle large conference broadcasts, either in the base service or as a separate product.

As we will see, there is a bit of variation among the business-grade products in all of these areas, as well as some differences in their bundling strategies and their behavior in restricted-bandwidth situations. There is also variation in the geographic coverage of vendors’ telephone points of presence (that is, global call-in numbers), although telephony infrastructure is becoming less important as more users call in from their computers (using microphones and speakers) or mobile devices.

Rise of WebRTC

The big tech news here is WebRTC, a draft set of protocols that define real-time communications in Web browsers. WebRTC, as specified, supports browser-to-browser applications for voice calling, video chat, and peer-to-peer file sharing without the need of either internal or external plug-ins.

WebRTC has implementations (of varying compliance to standards) in most desktop, Android, and iOS browsers, with the exception of Internet Explorer and Safari. Microsoft Edgesupports the protocol, and plug-ins are available to add WebRTC to IE and Safari.

Unfortunately, as many Web meeting developers have found, no browser has fully implemented the current draft WebRTC spec, and the implementations differ. In the course of this review, I have sometimes been asked to use Firefox for my tests and sometimes to use Chrome. Vendors still have to resort to plug-ins, Java, or Flash for some specific features of their Web conferencing products, and for browsers they don’t yet support for WebRTC.

The specific capabilities that need plug-ins are mostly features for the conference host, such as screen sharing or file uploading. In many cases, Web conference attendees joining from a supported browser are able to do so without any downloads. As one of the biggest issues with Web conferencing has long been setup problems for “newbie” attendees, this marks improvement in the field.

Zoom

Zoom is an up-and-coming Web conferencing company founded by former WebEx developers. When I first looked at it a couple of years ago, Zoom had very good audio-visual quality -- as good as or better than WebEx -- but few features outside of core Web conferencing. Since then it has grown into a high-quality, all-in-one conferencing solution that lacks only persistent meeting spaces and objects, such as those found in Adobe Connect, Cisco Spark, and Citrix Podio.

Zoom meetings currently support Mac, Linux, and Windows desktops; iOS, Android, and BlackBerry mobile devices; and Cisco, Polycom, and Lifesize H.323/SIP video endpoints. Zoom does require a download to join a meeting from a desktop the first time, but it’s a relatively small and painless download. If integration with Cisco and other H.323/SIP video endpoints sounds like a shot across WebEx’s bow to you, I think you have the right idea. 

Zoom now has licensing plans for meetings that range from personal to enterprise-size, as well as for education, health care (HIPAA-compliant), and API partners. It allows on-premises deployment as well as cloud-based usage.

zoom share

In Zoom, you can share desktops, windows, whiteboards, and iPhone and iPad screens. Sharing computer sound and iPhone and iPad screens require plug-ins. The Zoom app (desktop and mobile) makes it easy to plan, join, and start meetings. If you start a meeting from the Zoom website, it will invoke the app.

In addition to meetings, Zoom licenses Zoom Rooms, H.323/SIP room connectors, video webinars with up to 3,000 viewers, and teleconferencing through a worldwide call-in and call-out telephony network. Zoom Rooms are a multiscreen solution that is competitive with Google Chromebox, Microsoft Lync Room, and H.323/SIP video endpoints.

Zoom meetings offer text chats, high-quality and optionally stereo audio and HD video, screen and window sharing, shared whiteboards, and audio sharing. In the last update, Zoom added breakout rooms to meetings; that’s competitive with Adobe Connect. Zoom’s ability to display iPhone and iPad screens from a desktop using a software plug-in is unique among Web conferencing systems, according to the company, although it isn’t that much different from what you can do if you’ve joined an Adobe Connect meeting with a mobile device.

What I don’t see in Zoom today is file sharing, pre- and postmeeting functionality, as well as persistent meeting rooms and objects. Less important, I don’t see any way to customize layouts or share course materials persistently from the cloud. On the other hand, you can integrate Zoom with learning management systems, and you can record meetings either locally or in the cloud.

LogMeIn Join.me

While WebEx and GoToMeeting seem to be engaged in a features race, Join.me has concentrated on simplicity and ease of use. (To be fair, WebEx has also streamlined its UI and improved its ease of use, albeit without cutting features.) As Basecamp showed for the project management space, sometimes fewer features and a simpler interface make for a more usable and effective product than including everything anyone could possibly want, no matter how infrequently they’d want it.

What feature set does Join.me support? Audio and video, obviously, but for fun (and probably to save bandwidth) the video feeds are displayed in bubbles, which you can move around at will. As you’d expect, you have text chat, whiteboarding, and screen sharing.

If you’re subscribed, attendees can use conference numbers in more than 50 countries and share windows as well as screens. Meeting recordings are stored in the cloud. You get a persistent personal link and can customize your background, you can lock a meeting and decide whether to admit people who knock to join, you can swap presenters, you can annotate the meeting, and you can use the meeting scheduler. At the Pro level, you have 5GB of storage for recordings; at the Enterprise level, you have 5TB.

You can join a meeting with one touch if you have an Apple Watch. If you use Chrome, you can take advantage of Join.me’s WebRTC support, but you can also join with a stand-alone client or with another browser using the older plug-in.

join.me start meeting

Once you have a Join.me account, you can set up a personal background. I used a black and white image of Phillips Academy.

With an Enterprise subscription, you have single sign-on, policy and permission management, and user and group management. You also get Salesforce integration.

On the downside, there’s no video endpoint or Linux support. The only postmeeting collaboration option is an email that the host is prompted to send to attendees after a meeting. For a persistent group workspace, you would want something like Cisco Spark, Citrix Podio, or an Adobe Connect team meeting room.

Join.me claims that its typical Enterprise license is half the cost of others, although they make you call sales instead of giving you a price. Join.me also includes unlimited audio as part of the subscription; there are no per-minute fees.

The company claims to have the highest customer satisfaction and the fastest-growing product in the Web meeting market. While I have no real reason to doubt these claims, they set off my “marketing bullshit” detector, and I take them with a grain of salt. Its absolute market share is certainly much smaller than WebEx’s.

I like Join.me for casual meetings. It’s certainly worth trying the free version to see whether you like it.

Drum ShareAnywhere

Drum ShareAnywhere is an example of what you can do toward building a Web conferencing system with WebRTC and HTML5, without plug-ins or downloads except for screen sharing. Drum has implementations on Firefox, Chrome, and mobile browsers, although video doesn’t currently work on Chrome.

ShareAnywhere has basic meeting and collaboration capabilities, as well as a very limited telephony network. On the other hand, you can start a Web meeting almost instantly, with good audio quality.

Drum is currently unable to upgrade a Web audio call to a video call. You need to leave the meeting and join again using the video option. The video window shows only the active speaker; even with this bandwidth optimization, in a test call between the United States and the company in England, I noticed video pausing.

drum my meeting

Drum ShareAnywhere is a WebRTC-based Web meeting system. Drum supports Chrome and Firefox, but currently video works in Firefox only.

The Drum representative suggested I’d get better video performance if I hard-wired my computer to the network. However, after the meeting I benchmarked my Wi-Fi connection and saw 75Mbps in both directions, so I don’t think so. In addition, I am able to see 10 simultaneous video streams on this computer without pauses using other Web conferencing software.

ShareAnywhere is a promising start, but it isn’t yet a serious contender in today’s Web meeting market.

Citrix GoToMeeting

While WebEx started the Web meeting industry, GoToMeeting has managed to develop even greater brand recognition, if not market share. I don’t know whether that’s because of the name, the marketing, or the service itself.

While WebEx tends to bundle many of its services, Citrix breaks its similar services up into different SKUs: GoToMeeting does not include ShareFile, for example, and the high-capacity GoToWebinar and GoToWebcast products are separate, as is the GoToTraining product. On the other hand, the Podio product introduced two years ago provides a persistent combination of social collaboration, meetings, and file sharing that is similar to WebEx.

GoToMeeting installs a Mac or Windows client application to actually run Web meetings, unless you are using Chrome, which supports a no-download HTML5/WebRTC client. Chrome is the only way to run GoToMeeting in Linux. Versioning of the client applications remains problematic. Can you guess how many versions of GoToMeeting I had on my iMac before cleaning them out of my Applications directory?

InfoWorld Scorecard
Capabilities (25%)
AV quality (25%)
Ease of use (20%)
Interoperability (10%)
Administration (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
Adobe Connect 10 9 9 9 9 8 9.2
Cisco WebEx 9 9 9 9 8 8 8.8
Citrix GoToMeeting 8 9 9 8 9 8 8.6
Drum ShareAnywhere 7 7 8 7 7 7 7.2
LogMeIn Join.me 8 9 9 8 9 9 8.7
Zoom 9 9 9 10 9 9 9.1
At a Glance
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