Review of online social platform Rally

Review online social platform RallyAdding to my reports on new platforms providing online incarnations of traditional conference socials, here’s a review of online social platform Rally.

Two points before we start

First, if you don’t know about online social platforms, check out the introduction included in my earlier reviews of Gatherly and Yotribe.

And second, bear in mind that these platforms are continually improving, making reviews like this one a moving target. For example, Gatherly has significantly increased their platform functionality since I reviewed them two months ago, so be cautious making direct comparisons between my reviews. Be sure to visit the platform websites to get the latest updates. Better yet, get a free time-limited account and check them out yourself.

OK, on with the review.

Platform metaphor

Unlike the birdseye view map metaphor of Gatherly and Yotribe, Rally does something a little different. Rally provides a venue with multiple rooms, and each room can have a variable number of tables.

Currently, each room can hold up to 35 participants, and each table up to 9. The company says they are exploring increasing room size to 50.

Rooms can be named, opened, and closed by the Rally host (indicated with a ☆ next to their name). Venue owners can make other attendees co-hosts. You can set the duration for a room to be open — a nice feature. Rally can provide hosts with a custom URL for their venue.

Rally’s fixed maximum room size approach differs from Gatherly’s (where the typical maximum room size is larger, and can be increased by prior arrangement), and Yotribe’s (people are automatically split into new rooms when a room size of 36 is reached). Here’s a screenshot of a Rally online social.

We are currently in the Upstairs Patio. The room dropdown menu allows us to pick another open room to visit, as shown in the animated image at the bottom of this section.

My current table, where I’m video chatting with Jake and Steve, is shown below Aimey’s video (she’s on stage — more on this later). Three other tables are shown on the right.

Hovering over the picture of any occupant brings up a menu of potential interactions with that person. I can leave my table and join any of the others, and people can join my table too. Or I can invite anyone to sit with me at a new table (you can see me inviting Aimey to join me at a new table).

Since this screenshot was taken, Rally has added an option to make tables private, so no one can join the table or listen in to the conversation there until it’s set to public again.

Finally, Rally is planning to add room background images and color selection, and music background in rooms in the near future.

Sound

Rally has an interesting twist on the sound you hear during an online social. The speaker icon next to the “All Tables” caption allows you to choose the “background chatter volume”. Like an in-person social, you can set this so you can hear some of the conversation at other tables. There are three settings: medium, louder, and off. Some people probably like this. As an older, hearing-impaired guy who is quite auditorily distractible, I want this setting off. Your choice!

Chat and broadcast

Rally has recently added text chat and broadcast to the platform. Chat with the room is currently available, and Rally plans to add single person and table chat soon. The host can broadcast a text announcement to all attendees in all rooms.

Presentation & panel capability

Rally includes “on stage” functionality for each room, which can be useful for small gatherings. But it doesn’t provide a single stage for multiple rooms. So you can’t use Rally to create a presenter or panel session for more than (currently) 36 people.

A host can bring themself and others on and off stage. Folks on stage appear in larger video windows on the upper left of the screen. Anyone speaking on stage will be heard by everyone in the room, and presenters can hear audience response at a reduced level, rather like as if they were speaking at a live event. Rally includes functional presenter screen sharing. An unlimited number of people can be on stage at one time, though there can be bandwidth issues with more than four. If there are more than three people on stage, their video windows are reduced in size

A nice feature is that it’s possible to converse with other people at your table while listening to those on stage. Another feature that could be useful when in stage presentation mode is that Rally allows the meeting host to randomly shuffle table occupants into tables of 2, 3, or 4 people. This can be useful if you are using Rally in a stage plus discussion mode. Presenters can deliver a chunk of content, and then small groups, randomized as necessary, can then discuss what they heard or saw.

However, the room size limit to the number of people who can listen to folks on stage currently limits Rally to a presentation tool for small audiences. They say they’re working to include video broadcasting between rooms.

Experience quality and interface

Like the other platforms I’ve reviewed, Rally works best with Chrome on a laptop or PC. Hosts can login with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google. A Rally attendee just needs a link to the venue, and only needs to provide their name. If you have multiple input and output sound and video sources, you can choose between them.

I have used Rally a few times, and occasionally experienced glitches. There is an “Improve connection” button, which seems to take you out of the room and bring you in again, losing your place where you left in the process. In general I judge the quality of the video chat as good, but based on my limited experience, not as reliable as Zoom.

One annoying aspect of the interface is that anyone can invite you to a new table at any time without you being able to decline the request. This can be somewhat jarring. I was able to remove someone who was speaking on the stage by inviting them to a new table. A yes/no acceptance option when invited to join a table would solve the problem.

Rally needs to improve its onboarding process for first-time users. Though the interface is pretty easy to understand and use, the current one-page introduction document is barely adequate. Right now, it’s good to have a dedicated host who notices when new attendees appear and helps them acclimatize.

Pricing

Like other online social platforms, Rally is in beta and still firming up pricing. Currently they plan to offer two pricing models, one for repeated events, such as regular team happy hours, and another for one-time events. They expect repeated event monthly costs to be comparable to Zoom pricing. Custom events will be “competitive” and use a per user, per hour model.

Currently you can try a one-room version of Rally for free.

Platform focus

Rally describes its current platform focus as follows:

“Rally’s focus is on networking events. Our ideal markets are internal networking events or small to medium size events (10 to 1000 people); however we have been effective with 1000+ events as well. Our goal is to focus less on one time events and more on monthly recurring events. For us it’s better to sell to associations, businesses, corporate marketers, and student clubs instead of large tradeshows, conferences etc. So I’d position us on the more frequent smaller events scale vs. Gatherly or Yotribe.”

Understandably, most online services today prefer the steady revenues from subscriptions to one-time purchases, and, based on this statement, Rally is no exception. I’m sympathetic, though purchasing a subscription for an independent meeting designer and facilitator like me is probably not a great fit. However, I’m not Rally’s target market! As usual, my behavior will depend on the pricing model Rally chooses.

Conclusions

I like Rally a lot, and I’m enjoying the company’s continual improvement of their feature set and platform. I still slightly prefer Gatherly’s room map interface, but that’s a personal preference that many may not share. Both platforms offer a highly credible and enjoyable online social experience that is sure to be a permanent game-changer for meetings. (Until such platforms become the new normal.) I expect to use and/or recommend both Rally and Gatherly in future. Yotribe’s development seems to have stalled since I reviewed it — right now, in my opinion, it’s not a serious competitor.

There is always more to say, but I hope you’ve found this review of online social platform Rally useful. Please share your experience with Rally, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

Two tools for online conference socials: Gatherly versus YoTribe review

Gatherly versus YoTribe review If you can’t hang out with people in person, how can you best meet up with your tribe online? That’s the selling proposition for a host of new platforms that have sprung up over the last few months: creating a compelling online incarnation of the traditional conference socials we all know and love (or hate). Last week I got to try out a couple of these new platforms, so I thought I’d write a Gatherly versus YoTribe review.

A maximum of around thirty people were present at any one time at the Gatherly test event, which I set up. I estimate there were around a hundred folks at the YoTribe event, which was organized by Anh Nguyen.

First, some context…

In-person conference socials

Imagine an in-person conference social. <sings>”It isn’t hard to do.”</sings> You enter the room and look around to see who’s there.

Perhaps you see people present whom you know. So you go over to them and say hi, or perhaps join a conversation they’re having with others. Perhaps you don’t recognize anyone. So you have to bravely sidle up to someone or a group and introduce yourself. Or insinuate yourself into a conversation. Perhaps you know there are people present who you’ve met online, but short of sneaking a look at everyone’s badge, there’s no easy way to find them.

During the social, you usually have multiple conversations with different individuals and groups. You move from one conversation to the next, as you and others desire. You may meet folks with whom you want to have a private conversation, so you go somewhere you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

These are the processes we take for granted at an in-person meeting social.

The inadequate networking functionality of most online meeting platforms

These days, we can network online via group messaging/text chat, audio chat, or video chat. (OK, yes, virtual reality has been available for a while too, but it hasn’t really taken off.) Just about all online meeting platforms now include traditional webinar style video conferencing, and many offer Zoom-style main room and breakout room meetings.

Many online meeting platforms tout their “networking” capabilities. When you look at the specifications, however, the majority offer only text chat! Some provide one-to-one networking via private video chat. And some describe their capability to support multiple video breakout rooms as “networking” — but this is disingenuous.

As anyone who’s tried to use Zoom breakouts for networking knows, the big barrier is that once someone’s entered a room, they can leave it to return to the main Zoom meeting but they can’t then move themselves to another breakout room. (Unless you make everyone a co-host, which is not a good idea for a meeting of any size, since a careless or malevolent co-host can cause havoc.)

Even if an online platform allows users to move between multiple breakout sessions, you still won’t experience something close to an in-person social. That’s because breakouts are fixed platform units that have to be set up in advance. There’s no easy way for three people, say, to decide they want to video chat about something amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then spontaneously split up and meet others.

Online conference socials using platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe

Online social platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. They do this using a map interface that shows individuals or groups of people scattered around a room or rooms. Gatherly versus YoTribe review When you join a social on one of these platforms, you find yourself as an name or photo on the map. You move around the map by simply clicking where you want to go.

If you move near another person’s name or picture, you’re automatically connected to them by video chat. If you move into one of the circles on the map — colored in the YoTribe screen shot above, or numbered (so-called “huddles”) in the Gatherly image below, you’ll automatically join a video chat with everyone in the circle/huddle. Gatherly versus YoTribe review Finished chatting? Click on the map to move somewhere else to join someone else or another conversation! Or click on the map away from everyone else so you can answer that phone call you just got.

That’s the basic interface. All such platforms provide this birds eye view of the positions of everyone in the social and the same mechanism to move around and meet others. Of course, each platform does this a little differently, and they include additional functions, like text chat, which I’ll cover below.

Requirements

Setup on both platforms couldn’t be much simpler. Both are browser based, so there’s no app to download or software to install. Attendees are given a link and an (optional) password to join the social room.

Gatherly requires you talk with their sales staff to set up the meeting. This ensures they size your server correctly. They will give you a link to your room that you can distribute to attendees. Gatherly requires you to use the Chrome browser.

YoTribe can be set up without any input from a YoTribe human. Get your own room from the button on their home page! Once you have your room, you can set up a room background (see below), set a room password for attendees. You can also set up an “icebreaker question”, though I’m not a big fan of these.

Meeting size and conversation group size

How many people can be in a single meeting while supporting multiple on-the-fly group conversations? And how many people can be in a single on-the-fly video chat?

These are key questions!

Just eight years ago, public platforms that provided a stable video chat with a mere ten people (think Google Hangouts) were state of the art. Today, we take this kind of technology for granted. But supporting multiple constantly-reconfiguring video chats for hundreds of people is hard, and costs money.

Most platforms today use open source WebRTC technology, the availability of which allows small companies like Gatherly (a handful of computer science students in Atlanta, Georgia) and YoTribe (a few techies in Berlin, Germany) to create a pretty impressive fluid video chat infrastructure.

In my opinion, the one-to-one private video chat provided in several other online meeting platforms is not sufficient to offer an intimate and fluid social experience. This is a key differentiator for platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe.

Gatherly size issues

Gatherly asks meeting owners to provide the maximum number of people who will be in the room and the largest group video chat size desired. They then host your meeting on a server that can handle the required load. In a test meeting last week, Gatherly comfortably handled spontaneous video chats with ~15 people. This seems more than enough capability to me.

YoTribe size issues

Currently, YoTribe has a different approach. One of the YoTribe founders, Leonard Witteler, explains: “As thousands of participants join a room, we split the room into many areas and serve the smaller areas from a properly load-balanced backend.” In our test last week, YoTribe ran into problems with groups larger than about ten people. Since there’s no limit that can be set on a conversation group’s size, this could cause a problem any time a large number of people try to video chat with each other.

YoTribe’s effort to create a platform that automatically scales to handle varying loads is impressive. The automatic addition of “areas” — each restricted to a maximum of 36 participants in our test last week — as the number of participants grows is an ingenious approach to mitigating the increased demand on the video chat servers they employ. However, such a system needs to fail gracefully when its limits are met. Given that we were able to stress YoTribe with about 100 participants in our test event, currently I’d prefer a platform like Gatherly with known, preset limits that will handle a predetermined load for a production event.

Gatherly versus YoTribe features

There is one minor nomenclature difference between Gatherly and YoTribe. Gatherly calls video chat groups “huddles”, while YoTribe calls them “circles”. Both platforms allow attendees to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras as needed.

Neither platform has much in the way of documentation. That’s probably because the developers are constantly adding new features. Luckily, both interfaces are simple enough that it’s not hard to figure out how they work, though it took me a few minutes, which could disorient and discourage some first-time users. Adding a short, skippable tutorial for attendees to view before entering the room would be a nice addition.

Interface

There are numerous small but sometimes significant differences between the interfaces of the two products. I will concentrate on what I noticed that’s important to me.

Map interface

Gatherly shows individual attendees on the map by name. It displays current huddles as circles with numbers inside, the number representing the count of people in that video chat. Moving your cursor over a huddle shows a list of the names of everyone in it. This is an intuitive interface that makes it quite easy to find specific people in the room: they are either shown by name outside the huddles or one can “search” the huddles by moving your cursor over them.

YoTribe shows individual attendees as pictures, selfies that are taken by the attendee’s webcam before they enter the room. This is great if you recognize most of the people present. If you don’t — my experience at most events — you’ll need to hover your cursor over each image to see their name. This is time consuming if there are many people present. In addition, I didn’t find any way to discover who was in a circle other than joining it and scanning through the participants.

I found Gatherly far easier to use to find specific people, or browse who’s present, than YoTribe.

YoTribe does have one extremely useful feature. The room host can upload an image that replaces the blank room map (see example below).

By creating an appropriate image, you could designate portions of the room as numbered or named breakout rooms, exhibit booths, etc. Gatherly provides this functionality as a service on request. In my opinion, Gatherly should follow YoTribe’s lead and make map customization completely under host control.

Video chat

Gatherly has a Zoom-gallery-style video chat display. As the number of people in the huddle increases, the video windows get smaller, keeping everyone visible. This worked well during our test event.

In addition, Gatherly has what I’d argue is an essential feature that YoTribe lacks: the ability to lock a video chat at any time so no one else can enter. This allows two or more people to have a private conversation. Private conversations like this are impossible in YoTribe, which allows anyone to suddenly join a video chat circle at any time

YoTribe shows circle chatters in a strip at the top of the screen, like Zoom’s webinar view. In practice this means that circles with more than five people can’t display everyone on screen simultaneously. As a result it’s hard to tell who’s speaking in a large circle, and because people can arrive and depart at any time, you’re never quite sure who’s present.

YoTribe does offer an option to share your screen with others in your current circle, which could be useful though there doesn’t seem to be a way to zoom the image to full screen.

Text chat/messaging

Gatherly includes a simple text chat interface that allows you to see the names of everyone present, message another person, or message everyone in your current huddle.
YoTribe text chat includes the above functions, plus a broadcast chat mode that allows attendees to send a message to everyone. Gatherly needs to implement this! Message notifications in YoTribe are easily overlooked though; the only indication is a small yellow circle in the chat window and chat icon.

Pricing

Currently YoTribe is free! (I suspect this won’t last, so enjoy it while you can.)

Gatherly is currently using a $x/head pricing model, where x depends on the size of the event. Right now, I suspect they might be flexible. They were kind enough to offer me a free test event last week.

Quick comparison with Remo

Remo is another platform that offers multi-person, map-based video chat (and a lot more besides). I’ve only seen a brief demo of the product so I don’t feel qualified to provide a review here. The map is much prettier than Gatherly’s and YoTribe’s, and uses a set of various table sizes as a metaphor for conversations. It’s noteworthy that the pricing for Remo is based on the maximum number of attendees, meeting duration, and seats available at a table (currently 4 {$50 – $150/month} or 6 {$400 or $900/month}). This highlights the significant costs for providing the kind of server power needed to support fluid on-the-fly video conferencing.

Security

Gatherly says they use Amazon Web Services servers and end-to end encryption. They do not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access. They offer password protection of rooms, and can include a waiting room (I did not see this) for you to vet attendees before they join. Finally, they provide “Kick and Ban features to ensure troublemakers stay out of your event”, which I didn’t see either.

YoTribe also allows a room password. Only guests who are in your circle can participate in your conversation; no one in the room can be invisible to you. Like Gatherly, YoTribe says it does not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access.

Conclusions

On balance, I prefer the Gatherly experience to YoTribe, though both platforms are useful and solid enough for small events. YoTribe has a more party-like feel, which could be a good fit for a group that mostly knows each other. Gatherly does a better job, in my opinion, of creating an experience closer to that of a friendly conference social.

However, your needs are likely different from mine, so I’ve summarized what I see as the advantages of each platform below.

Gatherly advantages

  • Being able to lock a Gatherly huddle, so you can be sure of a private conversation is a big plus.
  • Gatherly’s Zoom-like video gallery view inside a huddle works well, allowing you to see everyone present. YoTribe’s scrolling strip of video windows only shows a fraction of the people in a large circle, and it’s difficult to figure out who’s there and who’s speaking.
  • Given YoTribe’s unpredictable loss of video chat functionality, I prefer to have Gatherly’s predetermined limits on event and chat size, allowing the platform to provide adequate power to reliably support the meeting.
  • I prefer Gatherly’s map interface to that of YoTribe. YoTribe’s attendee photo icons are great if you recognize most people. But seeing names moving around the map is more helpful in general. In addition, Gatherly’s ability to show you the names of the people in a huddle just by hovering your cursor over it is much more informative.

YoTribe’s advantages

  • For now YoTribe is free, and Gatherly costs $!
  • A YoTribe room can be set up and used without any communication with YoTribe, while Gatherly requires you talk to their sales staff first.
  • YoTribe has broadcast text chat, which Gatherly did not, though I’m told it will be added any day now.
  • YoTribe creates new rooms automatically when the number of attendees in any room exceeds 36. Gatherly says they will soon have a fixed room feature too, with “elevators” that allow you to move to a different floor (see the image below). I think this will likely provide an easier to navigate social meeting than YoTribe’s extra-room-on-the-fly approach.
  • Unlike Gatherly, YoTribe allows the host to upload an image file to replace the blank map where attendees roam. This is a very useful feature. I hope that Gatherly implements it soon.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found this Gatherly versus YoTribe review useful. I know that Gatherly is being constantly updated. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that YoTribe developers are hard at work as well. So reviews like this are a moving target. Please share your experience with these platforms, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

22 great Apple apps for event professionals

great Apple apps for event professionals

Two years have passed since the last update of my great Apple apps for event professionals. Apps continue to be born, evolve, and, sometimes, die—so it’s time for my latest list of event professionals’ great apps!

Read the rest of this entry »

14 great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners—2015 update

App_Store

Two years have passed since I last updated my list of favorite iPad/iPhone apps for event planners. While I’m still a big fan of five of the original apps I chose just two weeks after receiving my original iPad back in 2010 (Simplenote, DropBox, Square, Evernote, and GoodReader), apps continue to be born, evolve, and, sometimes, die—so it’s time for an event planners’ great apps update!

I’m still using the iPhone 5S, iPad 3, and the Tumi Alpha “everything bag” I gushed over in my 2013 app update, though I’m coveting an iPhone 6S, a newer iPad, and, maybe, an Apple Watch.

Rather than listing additions and removals from my two previous posts, I’m presenting a complete alphabetized current list, including updated descriptions that incorporate any notable new features I use. An [!] next to an app indicates it’s stood the test of time, while an [N] means it’s a new addition since my 2013 update.

BirdbrainBirdbrain, [!] $2.99
If you are active on Twitter (and I’d argue that most event planners should be) Birdbrain is a fantastic way to manage your Twitter network. The app provides an excellent overview and management of your followers and those you follow. Birdbrain handles multiple accounts, makes it easy to investigate anyone on Twitter, allows you to track unfollows as they occur, list people you’re following who don’t follow you, display mentions and retweets, and provides informative statistics showing changes in your Twitter stats over time. The only feature I’d like to see added is the ability to show inactive accounts you’re following. Recommended!

Dropbox_IconDropbox, [!] free for 2 GB, Dropbox Pro $9.99/month or $99/year
I’ve been using Dropbox for years on my office Macs, iPad and iPhone.

Dropbox keeps your files safe, synced, and easy to share between multiple computers and devices. All contents of the Dropbox folder on all linked devices (Macintosh, Linux, Windows, IOS, Android; even Blackberry and Kindle Fire!) running Dropbox are automatically synced when new files or changes are detected. You don’t have to be continually online; all changes sync once your computer has an Internet connection again. You can create shared folders, allowing several people to collaborate on a set of files.

The free service gives you 2GB of space on Dropbox’s servers, which was plenty for me for many years (and Dropbox offers ways to increase the free limit) but last year I took the plunge and upgraded to Dropbox Pro (see below). A nice feature is that the server stores the last 30 days of versions of your files, so you can revert to an older version if needed. If you want more storage, you can upgrade to Dropbox Pro for $9.99/month or $99/year. This paid upgrade includes 1TB of storage plus unlimited older versions of your files, remote wipe, read-only shared folders, and password protected shared links. It’s worth every penny to me.

The Dropbox app allows you to access your Dropbox files on your iPhone or iPad. Image, music, movie, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, PDF, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, HTML, and text file formats can be displayed by the app. Unlike the desktop versions of Dropbox, files are not stored automatically on a mobile device but are uploaded on request by marking them as Favorites.

Dropbox also includes a web interface to your files, so you can access them (and older versions) from any Internet connected computer.

While I was writing my books, I stored all my important files on Dropbox. It gave me great peace of mind to know that up-to-date versions of my book’s many files were being automatically saved remotely and on all my office computers.

evernote_logoEvernote, [!] free, Plus $24.99/year, Premium $49.99/year
Evernote is my go-to application for capturing information I want to be able to find in the future. I use it mainly for web pages, but it will file text notes, pdfs, spreadsheets, photos, voice memos, and screenshots too. Evernote clients are available for most mobile and desktop operating systems. Everything captured is made searchable—you can add your own tags if you like—and can be stored in specific categories (“notebooks”) if desired. The iPad version takes full advantage of the large screen. Your notes are stored on Evernote’s servers and locally and are synced to your mobile device and to Mac OS X and Windows computers running an Evernote client.

Evernote supplies web clipping functionality for all major desktop and mobile browsers, so, with a few clicks, it’s easy to safely capture that article you think could be really useful one day.

You can upload up to 60MB per month (with a maximum single note size of 25MB) using the free Evernote service, and this has always been adequate for me. The Plus version raises the upload maximum to 1GB/month with a maximum single note size of 50MB, the Premium service to 10GB/month with a maximum single note size of 200MB. Plus and Premium include some additional benefits, none of which have tempted me to pay for them. Yet.

GateGurugateguru, [!] free
GateGuru is an airport information app that was purchased by TripAdvisor in June 2013. While it attempts to replicate some of Tripit‘s functionality, I use it to scope out the places to eat (aka amenities) at airports. The traveler’s reviews, while sometimes spotty, usually allow you to pick out the best place to satisfy your current gustatory desires, and I’ve occasionally found a real gem tucked away on Concourse C that I’d otherwise have missed.

goodreader-logoGoodReader, [!] $4.99
GoodReader is an inexpensive app that allows you to transfer files to your mobile device, by Wifi or from an Internet cloud server, and reliably view them. Like the Dropbox viewer, it supports a huge range of file formats. Unlike other mobile file readers, GoodReader has no problem rapidly opening, displaying, and responsively scrolling through the 350-page ebook version of Conferences That Work and other large files I’ve thrown at it.

GoodReader syncs beautifully with Dropbox, allowing me to work on files on any computing device and then upload them to a GoodReader folder for convenient viewing. When I’m facilitating or presenting at an event, I’ll typically use GoodReader to display all relevant files in a multi-tabbed app window, allowing me to quickly refer to them when needed.

googlevoiceGoogle Voice, [!] free app, most but not all services are free
Google Voice has been around for years and has a bazillion options, many of which I don’t really understand. But that’s OK, because I find it very useful for three things: a) transferring calls made to my cell to my office phone when I’m at home where my cell phone doesn’t work (ah, the joys of living in rural Vermont),  b) replacing my cell phone provider’s voice mail and sending me an email and a noble attempt at transcription when I don’t answer my mobile, and c) texting. Now let’s be clear: I hate texting and refuse to pay the inflated rates that carriers charge for it on my cell phone, but sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with some people. Google Voice to the rescue! I can text for free from my free Google Voice number, which works with strangers as long as I let them know in the message that it’s me, Adrian Segar, texting them.

Incidentally, though I haven’t yet used this feature, calls made using Google Voice from outside the U.S. to U.S. numbers cost just 1¢/minute; a pretty good rate!

imessageMessages, [N] free
This is a no-brainer, especially if you’re a cheapskate like me that won’t pay more for texting. If someone has an iDevice, I can message them without paying for texts. Unlike texting, you get to discover whether your message/photo/movie was actually delivered or not. (If Messages could tell me the recipient saw my message, that would be even better, but I guess we’ll have to wait until brain monitor functionality is built into IOS 42.) Works well for me. I’ve heard there can be glitches if you abandon your iDevice and go over to The Dark Android Side, but you’d never do that would you? Would you?

opentableOpenTable, [!] free
OpenTable allows you to make free reservations at ~32,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. No more phone calls to a restaurant only to get an answering machine, having to leave a message, and wondering whether you’ll get the reservation you wanted or not. The app works quickly and many reservations give you OpenTable points which can eventually (you’d have to use it a lot) be redeemed for a discount off your meal.

Post-It PlusPost-it® Plus, [N] free
I’ve written in detail about this little gem here. Suffice it to say that if you do any kind of group work with sticky notes, this is a great tool for capturing, organizing, and sharing multitudes of these colorful little rectangles. Since I wrote the linked review, 3M has continued to add new features: you can now edit notes and add additional digital notes to existing boards.

square-logo

Register, [!, formerly Square] app free, card transaction fees extra
Square’s Register app provides a neat inexpensive way to easily accept card payments. You can create lists of the items or services you sell. It took me just a few minutes to set up Register for selling my first book three ways—paperback, ebook, or combo—at a presentation or trade show. When you sign up for the service, Square sends you a free swipe card reader that plugs into your iPad or iPhone. They have a free contactless (NFC) and chip card reader shipping soon, in time for the new EMV chip credit card merchant obligations that will be in force in the U.S. later this year. You can also process cash sales and send receipts to a buyer’s email address. Square provides a complete downloadable record of all your sales.

Square charges reasonable card fees: 2.75% for a swiped card and 3.5% + $0.15 for a keyed-in card. These are the only charges for the service; there’s no monthly fee or minimum and no contract or merchant account required. This is a great app for selling promotional items at events.

simplenoteSimplenote, [!] free
I rarely need elaborately formatted documents. What I do need is a simple text editor that imports ASCII, RTF or HTML files, backs up my writing safely, and synchronizes it across my mobile and office computers.

That’s exactly what Simplenote, combined with copies of Notational Velocity (free, open source) on my office computers do. Anything I write in Simplenote on my iPad (I rarely use it on my iPhone, though it works there) gets saved and backed up to the Internet cloud (on a free account at Simplenote). When I open Notational Velocity on an office computer, my notes there are synchronized. Similarly, any notes updated on my office machines are synchronized to the iPad when I open Simplenote. All communications are encrypted.

Both Simplenote and Notational Velocity offer blazing fast search and support thousands of notes.

While Simplenote now sports a Mac desktop version, I prefer to stick with Notational Velocity there because the former doesn’t support styled text (bold, italic, etc.)

For just pure writing, safely backed up and synchronized, you can’t beat the combination of these two free apps!

Swarmfoursquare [formerly Foursquare], [! & N] free
Foursquare, started as a game (be the mayor of places, win badges, and have more points than your friends) and a way to see where your friends are and what they’re doing. I live mostly in a rural area and, while I have occasionally discovered and met up with friends I didn’t know were near me, my main use of this service is to store a searchable history of where I’ve been. When did I drop off that luggage to be repaired? What was the name of that great place I ate dinner with Susie in Atlanta? When exactly was I in Anguilla in 2009? Foursquare’s history of my check-ins is often useful in unexpected ways.

In 2014, Foursquare tried to reposition their app by splitting it into two: Foursquare, a Yelp look-alike competitor, and Swarm, which would remain the “check-in” app. The move did not go well, especially after Foursquare removed the mayor feature in Swarm which took out some of the fun of checking-in. The company’s missteps cost it popularity—a lot less people seem to be checking in recently. Recently, they added back mayorships. Yes, I admit it, it’s fun to triumphantly win back the mayorship of my favorite local restaurant once in a while, but the history feature is the main reason I use Swarm these days.

WazeWaze, [!] free
Waze is my favorite traffic and navigation app of the many that I’ve tried (though some Uber drivers have told me that Google Maps now has more helpful junction navigation in big cities). Unlike traditional GPS units with traffic updates that are often found to be woefully out of date, Waze uses information from its own users to detect traffic snarls and reroutes you on the fly when necessary to avoid that accident that happened up ahead five minutes ago or the rush hour traffic jam building up on the interstate you normally drive on to get home. Its estimates of arrival time, even on long trips, are astonishingly accurate. Owned by Google, my only concern is that the company will start using my location in nefarious ways. If I start seeing too many annoying ads promoting the tattoo parlor I’m passing by I’ll reconsider. Until then, this is an amazing app that has saved me hours of driving and frustration, and shown me countless new neighborhoods as I bypass traffic where other drivers sit fuming.

wundergroundWunderground, [N] free
Goodbye Weatherbug Elite, Yahoo Weather (still think of you fondly, loved your simplicity), and all the other weather apps I’ve dated the last few years. I’m going steady with Wunderground now. Darling W (yes, we’re on first initial terms), your gorgeous graph interface makes it easy to get a quick big picture of the next ten days, your hour by hour forecasts are so handy for deciding whether to move the social indoors, and your weather map predictions load so fast. I’d be a fool to look at anyone else. Sure, W, I admit to a fickle past with weather apps, but now I’m seriously thinking about settling down for good. With you, always by my side…So, what’s it going to be like in Maine next week?

So event professionals, what have I missed? Do you have a favorite app I haven’t mentioned here? Let the world know in the comments!

A better tool for conference calls: Maestro Conference

Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Note Conferences That Work at upper left!
Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Conferences That Work included at upper left!

Graphic created by Teresa Bidlake, of Concepts Captured

Taking part in a traditional conference call is rarely much fun. Here are some irritations that you’ve probably experienced:

  • Poor call quality. Some callers are faint and/or there’s noise on the line. Any noise at any caller’s location, like someone yelling in the background or answering another call, is picked up and broadcast to everyone on the call.
  • There’s no way to know when someone is about to speak; awkwardness abounds as people start to talk simultaneously.
  • Only one person can speak at a time, and they have to address the whole group.
  • There’s no way to know who wants to speak, to ask or answer questions.

So my expectations were not high a couple of days ago, when I joined 77 people (!) on an “NCDD confab” on online engagement. NCDD is the nonprofit National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, a network of over 1,200 members working on conflict resolution and public engagement practice.

What a contrast! Instead of the usual conference call hell you’d expect on a call with nearly 80 people, our two hours together were surprisingly enjoyable, in large part because we used Maestro, a conference call / online tool that combines traditional conference call features with the ability to create small group conversations amongst the participants on the same call.

Here’s why using the Maestro Conference system worked so well for this large group:

  • The Maestro system allows the call organizers to easily create small breakout groups at any time during the call. During our call, we were twice split into small groups of 3-5 people to introduce ourselves and discuss a given question. Chimes and messages informed us when were halfway through our allotted time, and when we had a minute left to go. When the small group discussion was finished, we were smoothly reunited with the entire group. In addition, organizers can join any small group and ask or answer questions at any time.
  • Individual telephones can be selectively muted by the Maestro system, so we heard no distracting sounds from participants’ phones. When the event organizers were speaking, all phones except theirs were muted. If they asked someone to speak, just that phone would be un-muted. The resulting call quality was excellent. In addition, the system’s call quality was uniformly high throughout our two-hour call. I heard no pops, hissing, or other annoying noises.
  • Maestro includes a simple but effective backchannel method for call participants to signal conference organizers, by pressing numbers on their phone keypad. (There’s no annoying sound heard when people do this.) This can be used to quickly poll participants, to ask the organizers for help, to opt-in or out of a topic or choice, or to indicate that the participant has something to say to the whole group. We used all these options during our call, including: answering a four yes/no question poll of the entire group in a minute; queuing up individual participants to speak about their experiences; and opting in or out of having our emails made available to other group members.

Here’s a short video from Maestro Conference that illustrates these points:

From the organizers’ perspective, Maestro Connect uses a web interface, which seems to offer an easy way to control the abilities I’ve described.

Pricing seems reasonable; and a free 30-day trial is available, as well as discounts for non-profit and solo practitioners.If you’re into such things, Maestro Conference has an affiliate program, (and I am not an affiliate).

During the call, I spoke to the entire group once, met and conversed with people in two small discussion groups, World Café style, and voted on questions that were asked. Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD and Amy Lenzo of World Café expertly facilitated the call, with a couple of assistants helping out as needed. The time flew by, very enjoyably.

In conclusion, this service, when appropriately used, can turn the normal broadcast-mode experience of a conference call into a much-more participatory and interactive time for callers. I don’t have experience of managing a Maestro Conference, but, as a participant, it seemed to be a straightforward process with no glitches. If you have a need for a superior kind of conference call, this service is well worth checking out.