Review: Yugma: Collaboration over IP

Wednesday Jul 2nd 2008 by Gerry Blackwell
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Yugma conference participants can share desktops and control of applications, mark up documents and record the whole session.

Is there room in the market for yet another Web-based collaboration service? After all, we already have WebEx and GoToMeeting, among others. Yugma Inc., a Minneapolis company that recently launched version 3 of its collaboration software, thinks the answer is Yes.

We tested the service recently and came away frustrated initially, but in the end reasonably impressed.

The Yugma service lets session leaders invite participants to a Web conference—including non-registered users who have not downloaded client software. Participants can then view and interact with a presenter’s desktop or with a single application program on his system.

Yugma provides a free audio conference bridge—you pay only long distance charges—and offers as well a version integrated (though not 100 percent) with Skype. Client software is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The Basics—Features and Pricing

A session leader can designate another participant as presenter, or give a participant mouse and keyboard control of his desktop or the application. Yugma includes annotation tools—free-hand drawing, shapes, underlining, etc.—that either the presenter or a participant can use to mark up a document on the screen.

All can use the whiteboard feature in brain storming sessions. And the shared file space lets participants upload a file to the Yugma server for others to download. An IM-like chat facility and session recording round out the main conference features.

Yugma client interface
The Yugma client interface. Click to see full-size image.

Like most such services, Yugma offers both free and premium versions. The free Yugma Personal service limits the number of participants in a conference (to ten), and provides only 15-day trials of some of the most useful features such as mouse/keyboard sharing, annotation and white boarding.

The Professional service comes in three versions, the main difference being the number of participants allowed per session: 20, 100, or 500. Prices range from $20 to $90 a month, or from $200 to $900 if you pay annually.

A Webinar feature that allows presenters to set up structured one-to-many sessions is only available with the Professional 100 and 500 services. And Yugma Enterprise, an un-priced high-end option, throws in group account administration, consolidated billing and a branded meeting portal page.

The Testing Experience

Our initial experience with Yugma was not good. But it got better.

Most volunteer testers had no problem registering for the service and downloading and installing the client software. One was ultimately unable to get the software properly installed, for reasons never determined.

We encountered various other problems in our first two test conferences, however. Some participants appeared to lose data connectivity part way through and couldn’t see the presenter’s desktop at all, even though they were still shown as logged in to the session.

Response for some was very sluggish, so that slides displayed on the presenter’s desktop did not appear until a few seconds later on their screens. And in the end, the client software appeared to freeze on at least one participant’s system. The teleconference bridge worked well.

The company later explained that it had encountered problems during the cut-over to new client and server software—performed, as luck would have it, the night before our first test. Some but not all of these problems were corrected by the second test.

In a third test, conducted several days later, after Yugma indicated that the product was now stable, the service and software performed very well indeed.

Setup and Interface

Setting up a conference is simple.

After logging in with username and password at the Yugma portal site, the elegant-looking client software launches. Clicking the Invite Contacts button opens a new Outlook e-mail form with a message giving the session ID of the meeting and a link for participants to follow to join it. The session leader simply selects participants from his Outlook Contacts (or Yugma Contacts) list and clicks Send.

In the similar-looking Skype version, which is downloadable from the Skype site and integrates with your Skype client, the Invite Contacts link opens the Skype Contacts list. Selecting contacts automatically sends out a Chat message with session ID and link.

In either case, participants following the link are prompted to download and install a Java applet if it’s their first Yugma conference (the applet launches automatically on subsequent conferences) and then key in a username to join the session.

The client software appears by default as a top-to-bottom vertical panel along the right side of the screen. It includes a standard menu bar at the top along with a cell-phone-like connectivity strength gauge that shows the throughput of the user’s connection to the Yugma server.

A cluster of icon buttons below the menu provides quick access to major functions such as Begin Sharing, Change Presenter, Share Files, Annotation Tools, and Mouse/Keyboard Control. Some of the icons are not particularly intuitive and the mouse-over text labels work only intermittently, so newbies may have to rely on the text menus.

A panel below these controls shows a list of attendees and indicates who is host, who is presenter, and who has mouse/keyboard control. The bottom panel is a chat window with at least two tabs, one for Public Chat, which all participants see, and one or more for Private Chats that participants can set up.

The user interface can also be minimized to show just the icon buttons.

Collaboration in Action

When sharing begins, the presenter’s desktop or the shared application appears in a window on participants’ screens. That window can be maximized, but will cover the Yugma interface.

The feature—new in the latest version—that allows a presenter to limit the view to just one application has a slight flaw, which Yugma acknowledges: If the presenter launches other programs after the session begins, those applications will be visible to participants.

The software displays a disclaimer at the beginning of each session warning presenters of this fact, and the company says it is working on new code to prevent it happening in future versions.

The basic functions are for the most part self-explanatory and familiar enough. Giving another participant mouse and keyboard control allows them to interact with the presenter’s desktop or the shared application as if they were sitting at his desk. (The presenter can regain temporary control simply by typing or moving his mouse.)

Ditto for the annotation tools. The controller—either the presenter or a designated attendee—can draw shapes, lines, squiggles and highlighting on the presenter’s desktop or the shared application.

Performance Issues

The effectiveness of desktop or application sharing and of remote desktop control and annotation is entirely dependent on throughput speed. If presenters have to wait for slides to appear on participants’ screens, for example, the application won’t be very effective.

In initial tests, this was a problem for some participants, but in the final test after Yugma had stabilized its system, response times were uniformly excellent.

Changes made by a presenter—display of a new slide in a PowerPoint deck, for example—appeared almost instantly on participants’ screens in the share window. When controlling a remote presenter’s desktop, typed characters or annotation gestures appeared with minimal delay.

The shared file space feature also worked flawlessly. Standard word processing documents uploaded to the Yugma server were available for download within seconds. A company representative says other users have stress tested the system by sending very large files, but none has managed to seriously impact performance.

That could change as the service becomes more heavily used, if Yugma doesn’t keep scaling up server and bandwidth capacity. But for now it works well.

Bandwidth may be an issue, however, if you’re also using Skype for voice conferencing. In our third conference, with three participants, we used Skype. While data throughput was excellent, voice connections were subpar, with voices fading out to the point of inaudibility at times, especially when more than one participant was talking.

(Note: if you use Skype for voice, you will have to set up the audio conference separately from the Skype client—the integration with Yugma is only to allow access to your Skype contact list to facilitate inviting attendees.)

Bottom Line: the client software and portal are well designed, the functionality is above average, and performance can be very good.

Yugma provides the professional service, which you will want if you’re planning to use this for business, on a 15-day trial basis. Our recommendation: test it for the full 15 days, and test it often with as many participants as possible. Our only concern, based on the experience described here, is the robustness of the service.

If you consistently get performance and service levels equal to the best we experienced, chances are it will stand up for the long haul.

Article courtesy of VoIPPlanet.

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