The only cool thing about this job is the volume of awesome toys that crosses my threshold. That and having a down-the-hall commute with a shower-optional working environment (kidding, Mom). Just today I picked up Microsoft's Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000. Apparently, Redmond didn't get it right 7,999 times, but this one is darn good: mouse, remote control for PowerPoint slide shows, and a laser pointer, all in one little rodent. Look for a blog review in a couple of weeks or so.
Only a couple of days prior to the rodent infestation, however, there arrived at my home a large box still trailing bits of Redmond dust. This one contained a slick-looking device that turned out to be Microsoft's super-secret, upside-down-enterprise-looking RoundTable conferencing device.
Let's see: speakerphone, check. Webcam, check. Live Meeting integration, check. But those are just the basics. For one thing, the Webcam is not only smart, it's panoramic. That means it'll keep a near-360 degree view of the entire conferencing table open in Live Meeting. And the brains really kick in when someone speaks: RoundTable will figure out who's doing the talking with its directional microphone, then pop that person's picture up in the speaker box.
The big caveat here is that this is not a Live Meeting 2005 operation. To make your RoundTable happy, you'll need to use Office Live Meeting (OLM) 2007 -- which isn't related to the Office Live hosted service, by the way, although OLM 2007 comes as a hosted service, too. (If this is giving you a headache, feel better, because I've already been there.) You also can run OLM 2007 internally using the latest versions of Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, although Microsoft is still working out the kinks on that as of this writing. Look for smooth sailing in this department only after OCS goes to shrink.
Because I don't have a conference room in my house, I was forced to send RoundTable to Brian Chee's lab out in Hawaii. He giggled gleefully but promised to do his part in the review. We installed OLM 2007 on his ailing Lenovo ThinkPad running XP and my brand-spanking-new Gateway E-475M loaner machine running Vista.
Plugging in RoundTable requires four steps: power it on; create a POTS or VoIP hook to the office phone system (we used straight POTS); connect via USB to the meeting owner's computer; and run Ethernet to a network with an Internet gateway or the OCS server. Supposedly, RoundTable can run as a speakerphone without being hooked to Live Meeting 2007, but we didn't test that.
Software installation is easy, but connecting to our test accounts on the hosted Office Live Meeting service proved troublesome. Microsoft needs to do a little beta polishing here, although we eventually got our two virtual noggins into the same virtual meeting room. From there, OLM 2007 does quite all right on its own with standard Webcams, but with RoundTable, it's downright entertaining. The new interface is much improved and has a slick portal-like feel that allows users to drop the various meeting elements they'll need onto the workspace (comments, questions and answers, multiple camera boxes, and the like).
Application-sharing takes up the lion's share of the interface and can display any Windows application on the meeting owner's desktop. We dropped a Web page in there because we like logos. Microsoft has also enhanced Live Meeting 2007 with upgraded support for event and training-class scenarios. You can build a poll or survey on the fly; handouts can be formatted for the interface and distributed during the meeting session; and you can even split the class up into virtual breakout rooms.
Although OCS will let you manage all this in-house, Microsoft supports all the advanced features of OLM 2007 in its hosted service. That also includes goodies such as event registration, though if you want integration with another e-learning system, you'll probably have to do that on your own using Live Meeting's new APIs.
Overall, Office Live Meeting 2007 is one of the slicker Web-based meeting apps I've seen in quite a while. RoundTable injects a whole lot of sex appeal, but OLM 2007 has enough new features to easily stand on its own. Application support proved robust in our tests, and both camera and voice support were solid. OLM is still in beta now, but companies with loads of online meetings will do well to check it out when it becomes more stable and available. Those of you with roughly an extra $3,000 and a common scenario including a few outside teleworkers routinely calling into meetings will be quite interested in RoundTable.
(Editor's note: A hands-on slideshow of Microsoft RoundTable and Office Live Meeting 2007 in action is available here.)