Thursday, April 3, 2008

Shared/Free Conferencing Tool Comparisons

Anyone who has worked on a project with members in another location will appreciate this. One such project team that I was part of in 2007, had members in San Jose, California, and another group in Boulder, Colorado, and a couple of other members in 2 other states. So we, as a team looked for free collaboration tools to allow us to IM back and forth, use a shared whiteboard, and possibly free voice-over-IP. We looked at a number of applications and decided on AIM Professional. It basically uses WebEx in combination with AIM. It worked for us. Recently I was reminded of our project and the need for shared communication tools by a thread on the IXDA List that I subscribe to ( ).

One member posted this set of requirements:

Shared, virtual whiteboard (allowing) geographically distributed design sessions.


- runs on Mac and Win, or (better) platform-independent

- supports free-hand drawing

- imports bitmap files or screen shots to draw on

- more than one user can draw simultaneously


- runs without installing very complicated dedicated server software

- freeware, shareware or affordable payware

The Intention was to use it together with audio/video conference such as Skype for a small project team (2-4 people) to run focused creative sessions.

Here are the options suggested by list members, in alphabetical order.

Adobe Acrobat Connect -- full-fledged IP conferencing system, seemed very nice and powerful way beyond the defined specifications, a bit expensive for a makeshift project.

Ajax13 -- drawing program, not a shared whiteboard.

ConceptShare -- great interface, intended for reviewing of finished concepts rather than for collaborative sketching.

Cumulate Draw -- no freehand drawing, only vector shapes.

e/pop – Windows only (not free?) -- no freehand drawing, only vector shapes. -- no image annotation (according to Jeff Howard).

Marratech -- free client for Mac, Win, Linux; meets all req's, has audio, video, chat etc -- full-fledged IP conferencing system.

Octopz -- browser based; only one user at a time can draw.

Persony -- only vector shapes. -- mainly for non-synchronous proofing.

Skrbl -- browser-based, meets above req's in principle, seemed a little immature.

Skype"> -- 3.0 is apparently going to have a whiteboard function, but it is not yet available for Mac.

Thinkature -- browser-based, shared whiteboard plus annotations, meets above req's but seemed quite unstable on Mac/Firefox.

WebEx -- full-fledged IP conferencing system, but only one user at a time can be the "Presenter" and do things like drawing. Not free.

Note: AIM Pro (link below), uses WebEx as an engine, and is free.

Yugma -- sharing desktops, one user at a time active.

The originator of the thread, Jonas Löwgren, chose Marratech for his needs, based on it’s maturity, it’s robustness in terms of functions, and the Swedish university network decided to support it, which meant (for Jonas) that they provide free meeting rooms (= server space). Since the client is free in the first place, that would add up to a zero-cost solution of business quality.
Also, having audio/video/chat in the same tool as the whiteboard (rather than as a separate app or as a telco service outside the IP network) has a few advantages in terms of meeting coordination.

Ironically, because of firewall obstacles, they were never able to get Marratech working, and instead settled on WebEx, which their company had existing corporate licensing already. They used it in conjunction with a telco phone meeting (hosted by
WebEx at the cost of a local call). It is OK but the concept of allowing only one user at a time to be active on the whiteboard tends to formalize the climate of the meeting.

As I mentioned earlier, my project team also used a version of WebEx, packaged within AIM Pro which worked for us with slightly less aches and pains than Jonas’s team. Thanks to the IXDA list and to Jonas for the spark of the thread and subsequently, of this blog topic!

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