Yugma: CoIP (Collaboration over IP)

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.

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