If you work in a corporate culture that's fond of meetings, or an industry that involves lots of long-distance collaboration, you've no doubt heard an increasing amount about "webinars" lately. The web-based meetings, usually involving collaborative editing, whiteboard brainstorming, slideshow presentations, and/or live desktop sharing, are helpful when teaching a computer concept or technique, providing a one-way presentation a la PowerPoint, or presenting ideas and getting feedback from clients. Lots of providers compete for the largely corporate market, but at least one site, DimDim, provides free web conference hosting for groups of 20 or less. We gave one of them a try and took a few screenshots, so read on to see what you can get for free in the webinar world.
DimDim not only offers free sign-ups for those wanting to host seminars for up to 20 participants, but offers up its hosting platform for free as an open source package, for those with the server space to do something with it. DimDim doesn't ask much more than a username, email, and password, and only from the host—those you invite to join only need to hit a connection link in the email that gets sent out when your webinars are scheduled and then starting.
The system requirements for anyone participating are basically having a decently high-speed connection and be using either Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. If a host wants to screencast their desktop, it usually requires a separate (free) program to be downloaded and launched automatically.
Each sign-up also gets a unique access key for conference calling—the old style of tele-conferencing. I tried calling in while hosting a meeting, but ended up being alone in a conference call, waiting for others to join. So either DimDim is offering this functionality as a separate enticement for lower-tech users, or I'm not quite doing it right (equally likely).
You can set up DimDim conferences in a lot of different ways, depending on your own setup and those of your participants. You can go audio & video, audio-only, or none of the above, if you just want to text-chat. You can rotate three microphone privileges amongst three other participants, choose whether your guests can see each other or not, and (perhaps the most helpful feature) set a time limit to your meeting, which ticks away in the upper-right corner and might help everyone stay a bit more focused.
I tested DimDim out with my (very patient) wife sitting in the same room and a friend connecting from across the city. Two were on residential cable connections and the third on DSL. The whiteboard, chat, and audio functions were surprisingly snappy and responsive, though I found out that using my laptop's built-in microphone and speakers was a bad idea on many levels—everybody could hear the pounding of my typing, and there were a number of looping echos. The desktop view sharing from my system was a bit laggy, however, and occasionally required my asking the guests to manually hit "refresh" in the main window. That's using residential upload speeds, though, and dependent on what else was uploading at the time.
Here's a full shot of DimDim in action, scaled just a bit to fit on this page. (Note: I lack a decent webcam, so we used another participant's camera to try out video conferencing, not shown in this shot):
In all, I found DimDim to give its free users a surprising amount of flexibility and functionality for the price, and would be interested to find out what options set apart the other webinar-hosting companies in the field.
Got any tips or experiences to share in hosting web conferences? Wish you weren't invited to so many? Tell us your take on webinars in the comments. (Thanks to mostlybob</> for the inspiration!)