The main toolbar is indeed very simple and it contains only 10 buttons grouped into three sections. The first two sections are basically devoted to navigation buttons and presentation-related functions (import or choose a presentation). The third and richer section is devoted to all of the other basic facilities of a typical Web conferencing system:
a) Desktop/application sharing
b) Web-touring, co-browsing
d) Text chat
Actually, Live Meeting sports an extra facility specifically devoted to taking screenshots and labelled "Insert Snapshot Slide". The tool is effective and very useful indeed. It provides a floating and resizable empty frame which can be dragged anywhere on screen. As it remains always on top of all other open applications, it is easy to call up anyone document or program, frame the part to be "photographed" and click the only button available on the frame border.
Importing and managing PowerPoint presentations is indeed very effective. Navigation controls are excellent and other unique features that originated with Placeware such as the "Automatic Slide Cycling" are all still available.
Live Meeting has also a standard set of menus like any normal application.
These menus include the typical File, Edit, View, Insert and Help (just like a Mac circa in the late 80s) selections available in most standard applications. To my surprise I found the commands available inside the menus extremely easy to understand and it really took me only a few seconds to make good sense of all of them. Impressive usability.
For all of the great improvements, largely in usability, integration and interface/interaction design let me also provide a short critical comment inspired by Live Meeting, with the idea in my heart to paint out where I wish such tools would move toward versus where they actually land.
Let me take inspiration from a small apparently insignificant item. Icons and buttons.
The icons and functions fully reflect the present governing metaphor for online collaboration and conferencing. Functions related to technical capabilities or methods and not on actual end user tasks or actions. In this Live Meeting makes no exception to the overall industry misunderstanding of what collaboration and conferencing means in normal terms to "normal" people.
Not many of us think in terms of "application sharing" or "web touring" rather than "audio" or "video conferencing". When we collaborate or present we sit in front of each other and we show things to each other while talking. We really could not care less about the protocol needed to "show" things or if it takes too much or too little bandwidth to do it at that color depth. We just want to show. A Web page, a text document, what I am saying now, some images or graphic files. We don't want to Web tour, or desktop share. We want to S-h-o-w.
Am I in show mode? That would be my only question to my system.
One-click activation should be standard and it should be the system that invisibly and intelligently decides for me: "Is this something that should be co-browsed? app-shared? Oh the guys have enough bandwidth that can they all app share at best color resolution".
One click turn on and no interface at all. The only additional components needed are floating, transparent and easily dockable text chat and live annotation tools.
All of the rest should be optional and I can turn it on as I need it, if ever.
Of course, in this dream system of mine voice over IP would be turned on for all participants from the first second while using a minimum of bandwidth and all of the great quality solutions showcased inside champion VoIP tools like Voxwire, Orbitalk, VoiceCafe and particularly Skype.
Back to Live Meeting.
In this light and looking at the above reflections I must also say that Live Meeting has made great strides forward in understanding how important the above concepts are. Let's hopefully see this intelligence roll down into Groove and into mainstream Office applications.
In the unified metaphor adopted inside Live Meeting everything to be shown must become a "slide" and the terminology is all centered around this "presentation" concept.
Live Meeting converts all of the visual content to be presented online to a static image file that it then get shared with all meeting participants. This creates less confusion about Web touring versus Application sharing and allows Web pages to be easily co-scrolled. By itself this last point shows a simple and elegant workaround and is quite a first in this industry (second only to the fascinating PageShare unique proprietary technology).
Among other features introduced by Live Meeting that have impressed me is the newly acquired ability for the presenter to interactively customize through a simple facility which components and features will be active and "visible" in the meeting room. This simple tool provides great flexibility in the final use and applications that can be made of Live Meeting and it tremendously enhances its potential range of applications. Well done.
Another great feature, is one inherited by the original Placeware platform:"Print-to-PDF", a facility allowing participants to print to PDF any or all of the presentation slides showcased during a session. Very handy.
Still another great feature is the "Review Slides" facility allowing the presenter to preview at will any slide before actually showing to the audience. A real life saver for any professional presenter.
Application sharing has been greatly improved at least from a user interface standpoint and usability viewpoint. The controls are now simpler and easier to use and one can now easily "pause" while sharing an application (perhaps to correct something) or hand out with a click of a button the control of any application on your computer to one of your meeting participants.
The new live annotation and mark-up tools show some great ideas while maintaining many limitations too. Finally designed with some intelligence, interface and information design rationale and with a pragmatical approach the Live Meeting annotation tools include a "live cursor" to point at items being showcased during a session, and all of the basic drawing objects are available: lines, rectangles, ovals, polylines and freehand are all neatly accessible under a one-icon button. This implementation represents one of the closest examples of what an ideal live annotation toolkit should look like demonstrating in practical terms how much less means more when collaborating and presenting online. On the negative side there are no options to select color, thickness or styles for these objects which severely limits the range of their applications. Even the text annotation tool offers no option to set text size or font for its use. Finally it is not possible to show/hide annotations but only to draw and erase them (see Linktivity WebDemo for a great implementation).
Many good shortcuts are now available making the presenter work extremely easy and efficient. Great usability. This is a very important feature when making a presentation online and I am surprised by the number of web conferencing tools that are still overlooking this aspect.
The help system has been completely redone. It is very comprehensive and rich with visual illustration and links to related topics. Well done.
Events can be recorded in full and made available to others for access at a later time. Unfortunately the Recording Control Panel is not active in the try-out version.
Surprisingly I have not been able to find a way to allow other participants to be elected to co-host my online event and according to the online documentation this doesn't seem to be a feature available in Live Meeting.
As another sad closing note I wasn't able to find an easy way to invite someone else to join my meeting without exiting Live Meeting and having to dig inside its outside event management facilities, so I resorted to a take a nice break before starting a deep and detailed test with other users to include also this new tool in my Official Online Guide. Though this is not evidently a SOHO product it stands as a good addition in the Enterprise section of my Guide and it offers a good point of reference for everyone else interested in staying on top of this rapidly evolving industry.
Overall I found Live Meeting a great Web conferencing tool with no audio, with a pricing model in line with other "enterprise" tools available on the market. For some critical comments about this new Microsoft product see my yesterday article entitled Microsoft Live Meeting Shows Microsoft Poor State Of Mind. Live Meeting offers impressive usability improvements and the whole lot of Placeware great tools.
If you can afford over USD $ 700 for a 10-people room while paying international phone rates at skyrocketing prices, this is the tool for you.