An Overview of Demo Software


Demo software is buzzing again. For quite sometime Dan Bricklin's Demo 2 or Lotus ScreenCam were all you needed. But with travel and documentation budgets being cut drastically, more organizations are looking for novel ways to accomplish support, training and documentation tasks. And "show me live" is winning a place alongside "tell me in words".

Of course huge bandwidth available on LANs and increasing adoption of DSL broadband in homes helps Demo Software vendors. Also new compression technologies and the widescale availability of Flash (98% of all browsers is Macromedia's claim) and other compression plugins means that more punch can be packed into a message. 3-7 minutes of live demo per 1mb of download is what many vendors are claiming. Whatever the reason, both IT training staffs and ISV documentation shops have some new and strong alternatives to manual documentation or help file formats.

The New Demo Technologies

PowerPoint and other presentation software has always been close to a breakthrough in demo software. Especially now that animations and video are much more readily created and/or incorporated into presentations. This make it easier to "show how" as well as "tell how" in presentations. But some vendors are turning that around and auto-embedding PowerPoint presentations into their Flash-based animations. And Macromedia's new FlashPaper makes that trivial to do. In fact, Flash animations and video are the leading technologies behind the new demo software - and in no small part due to the fact that both are readily delivered either standalone or over the Web. As well demo software can deliver a mix of media with the message - audio, text, animations, video, even 3D graphics. This is critical for high end demos and web advertisements from auto companies, cruise lines, and realtors.

The other major technology being used is broadcast web conferencing (or webinars),in which a demo done at a website is broadcast to a wide array of viewers. This is fundamentally different from the Flash or screen-capture demos as it is done live and therefore can allow for feedback and dynamic changes to the presentation depending on response from the audience. IDC's 2001 Conferencing Survey showed that usage of web conferencing is strong: more than 43% of respondents planned to increase conferencing usage by 100% or more.Web Conferencing can allow for chat sessions among users, video speaker presence, universal whiteboard interaction along with desktop session demos and sharing of control of those sessions across the meeting net. But most important of all, web conferencing is now delivering security, reliability and scalability as online meetings and training demos with hundreds of participants are practicable.

But don't be misled, meat and potatoes demo applications are also quickly adopting the new demo technologies. For software FAQ questions, demo disks, or support services; documenters frequently utilize session animation software or hosted web sessions to convey their messages in new ways beyond the user guide or quick start manuals. For example MapleSoft, creators of the Maple 9 math software, uses free webinars to demonstrate some of the key features of its software. OnPoint demos its courseware using AVI animations developed with Camtasia Studio. Swift3D tackles the problem of showing off its very rich 3D software interface by using Flash demos developed with eHelp's RoboDemo. And this editor has participated in a number of sessions with the likes of Corel, IBM/Rational, CDI and other ISVs using conferencing from IBM/Lotus with Sametime, Placeware now Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Webex Training Center or Centra RealTime Collaboration

The Reviews

So this begins a two part set of reviews on Demo Software. The first part will look at the "static" options - that is demo software that can be used to create standalone tutorials and training sessions that can be distributed directly, over the Web and/or in specialty CD/DVD or kiosk settings. An upcoming second review will look at some of the demo, training and web conferencing capabilities that allow organizations to respond to or train up their employees/customers in new interactive and cost effective ways.

In sum, the sometimes tedious and thankless tasks of documentation, training and support have taken on new luster because organizations can gain market position by taking advantage of the new demo software capabilities. For a longtime, this documenter and technical writer had looked for a Lotus ScreenCam on steroids (that is easy to edit and embellish a captured software session)for creating great software demonstrations; now there at least five or six good options to choose from.

Next: A look at key demo technologies

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