Hassle-free online conferencing

Do people in your company need to collaborate fairly intimately with others who are geographically distant in order to get their work done more quickly? By ‘intimately’ I mean a mix of voice and screen sharing among a smallish group of people.

And would you like to do this at a low fixed cost and with no technical faffing around? If so, I think that Citrix Online has recently excelled itself (and everyone else) with the announcement of its latest GoToMeeting service which can now carry good-quality web-based voice as well as screen sharing. And it has been written from the ground up for either PC or Macintosh computers, although the latter is still missing one or two of the non-mainstream functions at the moment.

GoToMeeting allows people to set up meetings instantly, or by arrangement. The primary user pays £25 per month for unlimited meetings while other participants just need a web browser, a headset (ideally) or a microphone and a speaker. It is possible to join meetings using a conventional phone at local rates, whether you use the screen element or not. The service uses a clever technique to make voice over the internet (VoIP) sound really good and another to make sure that the screen displays stays in synch with the conversation, regardless of the available bandwidth.

Once in a meeting, anyone’s screen can be displayed, it doesn’t have to be the main user’s. And anything that appears on a screen can be shared. It could be a presentation, a sketch pad, a spreadsheet, a movie, even the output from a screencam although, if the participants already know each other, this wouldn’t add a great deal of value to the meeting. It is possible to give control of the mouse and keyboard to another participant, to enable them to operate the application. And, reading the user guide, I notice that participants can be allowed to annotate the current screen.

Meetings using the standard £25 licence are capped at 15 participants, although you can go for the ‘corporate’ version which allows up to 25 users and offers additional management facilities as well as a variety of subscription packages.

The primary business benefits of GoToMeeting are enhanced productivity and reduced travel, all for a fixed and known monthly cost for unlimited usage. Plus the cost of calls for those who have to dial in. Citrix Online sells primarily to small to medium businesses or to departments of larger businesses. ‘Up to 1000 employees’ is the rule of thumb. You can try it for 30 days at no charge (but you do have to provide your credit card details and remember to cancel if you don’t want to continue.)

The software is exceedingly easy to learn and use. It has, for example, play and pause buttons, giving you the chance to change your display locally without others seeing all your navigation and logging in activities.

You can record conversations and screen displays. You can chat in an instant messaging window – to all or selected participants. Typically, the active participant would be showing a presentation, a website, part of the intranet or documents such as spreadsheets. It’s like sitting at someone’s desk or in a meeting room but without the associated technical and physical overheads.

If you’re new to Citrix Online, you might be interested in the company’s other services. GoToMyPC allows you to reach your PC from a browser and use it just as if you were in front of it. GoTo Assist lets you share a mouse, screen and keyboard with a remote user. GoToWebinar allows you to present to up to 1000 people concurrently.

Well worth a look, I’d say.

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