You've probably experienced the "joys" of holding a business meeting when half of your office is somewhere else. Fortunately, there are Web conferencing services that can make these meetings more productive. These tools enable users to share documents, chat and use video. They ensure that you and your team are on -- and looking at -- the same page. WebEx Communicationsand GoToMeeting are the big names in this business, but Dimdim, Yuuguu and ReadyTalk are also worth a look. Adobe Systems ( ADBE) has been making waves with its Web-based confab product, ConnectNow, which is part of its Acrobat.com line of online office tools. The company offers free accounts for groups of no more than three people and premium subscriptions that cost up to $39 a month, which includes unlimited downloads and posting for 20-person meetings. About a half dozen of us here in my digital world have been testing ConnectNow for the past few weeks. So far, it's making the grade. What you get: A powerful, flexible meeting tool at a nice price. Like Adobe's Flash and Photoshop, the Web-conferencing service is meticulously coded and easy to use once you get the hang of it. To get started, simply surf over to Acrobat.com and create a free account. ConnectNow gives you a Web address that you can customize and forward to your participants. And voila: Three of you can hold a decent meeting for nothing. Users can share documents, chat, share Web-cam feeds and, if you desire, access the host's desktop. More folks and features push fees higher.
Adobe's usually finicky Flash software made ConnectNow safe and robust. It would be very difficult for an outsider to hack the event since you would need an identity and a login. As long as the meeting host recognizes who's logging in, security is easy to control. Once we got the system installed and everyone up to speed, we found the product manageable. What you don't get: A perfectly smooth meeting tool. ConnectNow's elegance and security come at a price, and using it can suck up the processing power of the host's computer. Expect thirsty apps like LiquidPlanner or big Excel docs to run slowly during meetings. You must also start and stop your meetings with the proper commands. It's too easy to leave meetings logged in and ongoing after everyone is gone. That means nobody will be able to meet on that account until the system times out. I blew a meeting that way last week. And while the video conferencing is a nice touch, it's reminiscent of Skype. Lips are out of sync. Color is blobby. Here we are in the 21st century, trying to add value with Playskool cameras. It makes me nuts. Bottom line: ConnectNow is a nice tool for your summer travel pocket. If you set up a demo account, you will probably start using it regularly. You can expect an easy-to-use, professional-looking collaborative space at the best price -- free. The pay versions are comparable to its rivals' tools, which cost about $10 more per month. But the experience is on par, if not better, with Adobe.