WiredRed e/pop 4.5

The cost and impracticality of professional videoconferencing solutions has meant. Now, as James Morris has discovered, there's a product that makes remote training, presentation and education a very real, and useable possibility

Price
£1,675

Videoconferencing was supposed to take the isolation out of having regional offices all around the world, and render the aeroplane obsolete. But spending thousands on a system that didn't seem to work all the time and was tied to a specific boardroom just didn't make a lot of sense for most companies. So it has remained very niche. Enter WiredRed e/pop, which purports to turn any Internet-connected PC into a fully featured teleconferencing node.

Of course, you could use NetMeeting or Skype 2 to achieve a very basic form of videoconferencing. But neither are particularly reliable nor offer a very rich selection of features. Your users also need to be fairly computer literate to use them. With e/pop it's a completely different story. You simply send your users an email with a URL for the conference. They click on it to gain access, and all they need locally is a Windows PC running Internet Explorer 5 or above. There is a Java-based Web Conferencing client for Mac in beta, but WiredRed hasn't yet made this commercially available.

The e/pop system comes in two flavours: a fully hosted service and as a server install. The latter works with any Windows server from NT onwards. It can be run on virtually any server hardware and doesn't need to be dedicated - we installed it on a low-end system running Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition, which is based on Windows Server 2003. A basic Pentium 4 server should be enough to handle 25 users. WiredRed claims installation only takes five minutes, and we would certainly agree. Once the application itself is installed, you're led through a simple wizard where you can choose to run the server as an application or service, and given the option to diverge from the default ports. This may be necessary, as by default e/pop uses 80 as one of its ports and this may already be in use by an existing web server. The remaining ports - 22, 23, 443, 1270, and 37000 - are less commonly used, although 22 is often required by SSH and 23 by Telnet. To make your conferences externally accessible, you will need to open up these ports and redirect them to your server, or place it in the DMZ.

You're then ready to create a conference. All administration can be performed via the web interface. You can either use the Quick Conference to get your sessions started, or use the fully featured New Conference screen instead. This allows you to finely tune settings for your conference, including audio and video configuration, the joining URL, default layout and so on. You can stream video either as H.263+ or MPEG4. You can then launch the conference, which will download and install the conferencing applet automatically. Once this is complete and you're logged in, you can invite participants from within the conferencing applet, which creates an email containing the appropriate URL for you. Recipients simply click on this URL to take them straight in, although the first time they do this they'll have to allow an ActiveX control to be installed. The client system may also need access through any local firewall enabled.

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With the conference in session, e/pop really comes into its own. You can use any installed webcam or video capture device to provide a video feed, so this allows both videoconferencing and canned video presentations. Enabling this merely requires the administrator to Unmute or Play all. This will then lead both the master system and clients to go through a setup wizard. You can also share documents from Word and PowerPoint. Sharing documents from these two applications doesn't require the host application to be installed on the client, as they're printed to e/pop's own sharing format. This then allows you to add annotations during presentation without affecting the original file. You can also share regions of your desktop, the entire desktop, or individual applications - ideal for systems training. The web browser has its own specific entry, although we found this only worked if the default browser is Internet Explorer. Then of course there's the essential text chat facility and whiteboard.

Bandwidth usage depends on your ISP or LAN if you go for the installable version, but you only get 250GB/month with the hosted alternative. We found video and audio conferencing worked just fine over an 802.11g WLAN, but video quality will be particularly restricted over slow internet connections. Unlike videoconferencing systems using dedicated links, quality depends mostly on the conference holder's and participants' internet provision.

It all sounds very rosy. However, there is one thing which may cause pause for thought - the price. For up to five concurrent users, you'll pay a hefty 1,675 a year or 225 a month for the hosted version, rising in price for more users. This is a lot less than a bespoke videoconferencing room for the same number of users, but it means it's not a light decision if your usage will only be occasional. Still, if remote presentation is your business, e/pop has fantastic potential while for remote tuition and training it could be ideal. Tutoreasy (www.tutoreasy.com) already uses e/pop for its online tuition services.

Maybe Skype 2 will bring social videoconferencing to the masses, but if your conferencing needs are more professional e/pop could be just the ticket. There's a fully functional 15-day trial available to help you decide too.

Verdict

Potentially very useful for remote education and training, particularly since your participants only need Internet Explorer, but this is no idle purchase

Server requirements: 1.4GHz Pentium 4, 256MB RAM, Windows Server 2000 SP 3 and onwards Client requirements: 800MHz Pentium III, 128MB RAM, Windows 95 SP 2 and up, and Internet Explorer 5 and onwards

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