Fast, easy Web business communications

What would you give to eliminate a few time-consuming meetings, conference calls, or e-mail strings? Yes, some meetings are necessary. But plenty more may not be, especially if you can clearly communicate the same information in a way that allows your colleagues to take it all in on their own time, at their own pace.

Yesler Software says its new Alive Web-presentation program lets you set up slide shows and/or videos -- complemented by audio narration and captions -- and place them on your Internet or intranet site. Sound complicated? Normally it is. But Yesler claims that Alive will help you deliver the goods in 10 minutes or less, without typing a line of HTML code.

Sound too good to be true? It did to me -- before I tried the program. Like most people, I don't have time to learn the latest HTML tricks, deal with umpteen file formats, and somehow miraculously pull it all together to create the effects I want. While it's commonplace for presentation tools these days to save in HTML, that's no help creating content quickly or easily. With Alive, you simply import sound or video you've recorded, synchronise it with captions, presentation slides, and other elements on screen, and the program does the rest.

Want to add your own image and spoken comments? All you'll need is a cheap microphone and an inexpensive digital Web camera. When you're done putting the presentation together, the playback will stream smoothly on your site. And anyone with a Web browser and RealPlayer 5.0 (a free download) can view your presentation.

Suppose you host a tech support site. You could show video of particularly dicey tasks in one frame, while slides on the other half of the screen outline the step-by-step process. Another example: say your marketing teams in Paris and Los Angeles needs an update on your decisions last week. Below your video you might run subtitles in French, while the other side of the screen cycles through various charts, maps, and Web links cited in your discussion.

How it works

The genius of Yesler Software's Alive is its simplicity: the interface looks and feels like you're working in PowerPoint's outline view, but underneath your work, it writes the HTML code and optimises files for speedy download and streaming. I reviewed a shipping copy using my trusty Pentium notebook, which has an integrated microphone and speakers. After the 34MB installation, I rebooted, launched Alive, and started my stopwatch. Up popped a bland white page with three icons. The first was for inserting audio and video, the second for adding type, and the third for creating captions.

For starters, Alive prompted me to pick a minimum connection speed for my media, so it would know how to convert each video and sound file into RealNetworks' RealMedia streaming format. I then imported text from a seven-slide PowerPoint 97 presentation, a Visio flow chart, a slick Flash animation, a handful of screen shots, plus a few nifty Web links for added measure. Adding captions below video is straightforward. Simply stop the playback engine when you want to type in a new caption.

After seven minutes, I pushed F5 to see a "Published Preview" of my page to that point. My browser came up with slides and clips playing smoothly. The only problem: I didn't like the black and white default layout. Fortunately, Alive includes nine page-layout templates, and 11 customisable style schemes. Basic changes like adding a new background, other fonts, or a new colour scheme are easy. I only wished I could have seen the actual page instead of just the outline mode. As a result, redesigning elements involved a lot jumping back and forth between Published Preview and Outline mode. Another limitation: more extensive modifications to the presentation layout will require a full-time HTML editor. A trial version of Allaire HomeSite 4.0 is included on the CD.

Great results in 10 minutes

By the time the 10-minute mark struck, my finished presentation ran like clockwork. Selecting the Publish command, Alive compressed my huge media files, making them trim and Web-ready, and offered to upload them to my site via FTP.

When I finally pointed my browser to my own address, the presentation looked pretty slick. In one window frame, captions displayed in sync with my RealPlayer movies and sound bites, while in the other frame my presentation slides segued smoothly.

Despite some minor hiccups, Alive lets you share media-rich information quickly and routinely with colleagues near and far. Best of all, it proves you don't need to be a Web master (or have a bulging bankroll) to use cool technology. Yesler offers a full-functioned 90-day evaluation version on its Web site.

I also checked out a prerelease copy of Yesler Software's Alive Server. Slated to ship for $US495 later this month, it works with Microsoft NT Web servers, and can stream media to as many as 20 users simultaneously. If you need more connections than that, the company suggests using RealNetwork's RealServer 5.0.


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