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On Beyond Powerpoint

Presentations get a wake-up call.

Snooze-inducing business slide shows aren't going away; in fact, emerging ways to share presentations online may make them even more pervasive. But thanks to some flashy new tools, presentations are getting easier to sit through and less onerous to create. New software, much of it running on the Web, lets you compose and distribute presentations online in novel ways. Web-based software can't match Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) PowerPoint feature for feature, but it's hard to beat the price (typically, free). Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) new Web-based presentation tool, part of Google Docs, is getting plenty of buzz. Here are other ways to give your bullet points impact.

Best for...Podcasting your presentation

ProfCast

What it is: Web software that lets you turn your presentation into an audio podcast--good for sales, marketing, or training

What's cool: It's easy. Just drag your presentation to the ProfCast application icon and perform your talk live, speaking into a microphone as you run through the slides. ProfCast syncs slides with the audio and converts slide titles into "chapters" that help listeners skip around. Then it will save files in a choice of standard formats for playback on PCs, Macs, iPods, and other portable players.

Drawbacks: It doesn't record video (for file size reasons). It runs only on Macs; a Windows version is due out by the end of the year or early 2008.

Price: $59.95


Best for...Creating quick but good graphics

SmartDraw2008

What it is: Desktop software that makes it simple to create sophisticated-looking graphics that are a step above PowerPoint

What's cool: This software is designed for people who aren't graphics specialists. It has templates and automated design help. It includes 17 categories of charts including maps and "chartoons" (USA Today-style infographics). It also offers an online encyclopedia of business graphics, with examples and notes about every type of graphic the company has seen.

Drawbacks: It doesn't work on the Mac or machines running Linux. It is powerful but potentially expensive.

Price: Individual licenses cost $297 each. Businesses may find it cheaper to take the Freedom License at $2,495 a year for unlimited access for up to 100 users.


Best for...Running free Web conferences

Dimdim

What it is: An open-source Web conferencing tool--like WebEx but free

What's cool: Did we mention that it's free? It's also simple: You don't need to install anything on your computer or network to get a Web conference with audio, chat, and video. It integrates with tools such as the Sugar customer relationship management system and the e-learning product Moodle (both of which are also open source), so you can display data from those systems in a conference. You also can track what you've presented to customers.

Drawbacks: It doesn't have a recording and archiving feature for past conferences, though that's among the features the company plans to add. Dimdim is an early-stage start-up, so it doesn't have a track record.

Price: Free. Support costs $8 a month, or $99 a year.


Best for...Handling multimedia Web presentations

Empressr

What it is: A hosted Web service for creating, managing, and sharing multimedia presentations

What's cool: Makes it easy to combine video, photos, animation, and text. You can link to media files on the Web. Empressr's effects include cool transitions and the ability to add things like reflections and dropped shadows for images, and it has hundreds of fonts.

Drawbacks: It's Web-only, so if you're without Web access, you're out of luck. It doesn't allow you to limit a presentation to a small group of co-workers; you need to post it in private mode and then send a link to it via e-mail (the company says it is adding a group sharing option).

Price: Free for now, but eventually business-oriented features such as storage and sharing with a specific group will cost money.


Best for...Putting video alongside a presentation

Zentation

What it is: A free tool that lets online viewers simultaneously watch your slides and a video of you speaking about them

What's cool: It requires no technical expertise beyond the ability to videotape a presentation and upload it. It's easy to post your work online to Zentation.com.

Drawbacks: It works only with PowerPoint files and Google Video. (YouTube compatibility is in the works.) Synchronizing the video with changing slides needs to be done manually. Keeping a presentation private (secure) costs money.

Price: Free. But for a secure presentation, hosted by Zentation, there is a charge that varies based on a number of factors. A 90-minute presentation that will have perhaps 2,000 views over two months would cost a minimum of $200.


Best for...Basic Web presenting

Spresent

What it is: A Web-based presentation tool, useful for things like letting colleagues in remote offices view slides during a conference call without having to set up a Web conference or e-mail presentations

What's cool: The software can help locate and retrieve images and videos on Flickr and YouTube, making it easy to work those into presentations. It's built in the widely used Flash environment, so it is graphics-friendly and works with all Web browsers. It offers a clever pen feature that lets you write or draw new slides as you present. And there is a desktop version of the software, so it works without a Net connection too.

Drawbacks: It is not as advanced as PowerPoint. Once Google enables its online presentation tool to work offline too, services like Spresent are in danger of becoming an afterthought.

Price: The Web version is free. The desktop version costs $29.95.

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