Open Source Virtual Whiteboards and Dimdim Review

I was recently asked to evaluate virtual whiteboard solutions for a client and had the opportunity to look at the state of open source whiteboards. With one exception, it wasn't a pretty scene.

By OpenLogic certification standards, nearly every open source whiteboard would have failed due to lack of activity, lack of community support and size (single developer.) If you're reading this and have deployed an open source virtual whiteboard solution in your enterprise, please leave a comment - I would love to hear from you.

There was one notable exception in the wasteland of open source whiteboards, Dimdim.

Dimdim carries on a rich open source tradition of extremely bad product naming, but otherwise, looks like a jewel in the rough. In July 08, Dimdim announced receiving a $6M infusion, so theoretically, they should have some runway to really improve this product. Needless to say, it's being actively developed.

Dimdim is an open source web-based meeting solution along the lines of WebEx, GotoMeeting or Raindance and is billed as a direct challenge to WebEx. While I'm not sure WebEx (or the others) have much to worry about yet, there are some compelling features of Dimdim that make it worth a look if you're in the market for an alternative, especially an open source alternative.

First you can use the Dimdim service to freely host meetings with up to 20 participants. They also offer paid services for meeting sizes larger than 20 in their "Pro" edition ($99) and their "Enterprise" edition ($1998). Finally, if you want to host your own instance of Dimdim, you can download the GPL'd community edition and host it with no participant limitations or license fee.

Dimdim clients are Flash based and work on Windows, Mac and Linux, though initiating desktop sharing is only available on Windows and more recently, Mac. Linux users can see shared desktops, but can't be the one sharing. If you have a webcam and/or microphone, those are supported pretty well by Dimdim. On my iMac, it picked up the camera with no fuss and the video feed is automatically integrated in the framework when you start a meeting.

Audio, like nearly all the commercial alternatives, is available embedded, but as with all the commercial alternatives, you're better off not using it and calling in on a standard conference calling bridge. The sound will simply be much better if you don't use the embedded audio.

Virtual Whiteboard

My main interest was in the virtual whiteboard feature for collaboration. I also wanted to make the whiteboard as natural as possible, so drawing with a mouse was out of the question.

I settled on using a Wacom tablet (Intuos 3) as an input device for the whiteboard since regardless of the whiteboard software, it could at least look like a mouse to the machine but be a much more natural drawing tool. The Wacom tablet has driver support for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The Wacom tablet Linux install is not the best and required some manual name editing of the xorg.conf file to get it working, but after that, it's reportedly working like a champ from users I've talked to.

One of the things I really like about the Dimdim whiteboard was that it is multi-paged. You definitely need it, too, because it's not resizeable and I think it is a shade too small for how a whiteboard is typically used. The second thing I really liked about the whiteboard is that when you leave a meeting or log out as a host and then resume that same meeting later, the whiteboard contents are still intact. You don't need to explicitly save the contents. If you're like most tech companies, your conference room whiteboards are constantly locked down in "Do not erase" mode, so having a virtually expanding, page-able whiteboard is nice.

Now for some of the first impressions on using a virtual whiteboard. My litmus was "how natural is it compared to the real thing?"

If you're prepared to practice a little bit, you can get decent results in short order, but it still won't be the same as grabbing a marker and whipping out diagrams. Before you present the first time, you should practice to see what works best for you.

Here are some Dimdim whiteboard pitfalls and best practices I found which were helpful in achieving more whiteboard-like results.

Don't use the geometric tools if you plan to annotate the shapes.

This warning comes from the issue of weak selection capability in the whiteboard editor. It's most easily demonstrated with this example:

concentric circle selection problem

If you draw a small shape and then encapsulate it with a larger shape, you can no longer select the small shape without moving the larger shape away from it, selecting it and then moving the large shape back again. This is obviously a pain.

It gets worse when you try to annotate the shape with text because the text area they give you will not resize to the extent of the text and therefore can radically overlap multiple elements of your drawing as in this example:


The text in the box that's selected is supposed to be in the upper left box, but the text area will overlap many other elements making them difficult or impossible to select without temporarily moving things out of the way.

For me, the Dimdim whiteboard came into its own when it was used with the Wacom tablet in a freehand mode (not using the geometric tools or text tools.) Despite the text tool's limitations in annotating a shape, it can do quite well for forming tight, readable lists. Using this combination, you can quickly achieve very whiteboard-like results and it's not clunky or frustrating to use.

Here's an scenario. Lets say you're whiteboarding a diagram and out of the discussion an issue comes up which needs further consideration, you can't deal with it right now, but you don't want to forget it. The typical method is to list it in a parking lot. Here's a contrived example showing the start of a diagram using freehand methods with a Wacom tablet, but using the Dimdim text tool for what it's good at, tight text - in this case the Parking Lot list:


You could even add another whiteboard page and put your parking lot items on it instead so it doesn't clutter up your diagram, but you don't lose the info. With the Dimdim whiteboard, it's fast to flip back and forth between pages.

Whiteboard Limitations

Some limitations of the Dimdim whiteboard that I found were:

You can't copy and paste between whiteboard pages
You can't duplicate a whiteboard page

Both items are supposedly in development now according to the email I got when I submitted an enhancement request.

You can't paste an image into a whiteboard. I would love to be able to do this because often you want to be able to collaboratively annotate an image of some sort - say a map, or existing diagram. The way you'd have to do this in Dimdim is to have a presenter share a desktop with a real application running - pull in an image and then annotate it. Again, not being able to hand control of the desktop to another participant remains a collaboration limitation.

Dimdim Limitations

Desktop sharing is still not up to par with the guys like WebEx and GotoMeeting who have been doing this gig for many years. I think this may be the #1 issue that will affect the rate of adoption of Dimdim. When I say it's not up to snuff, I mean specifically that remote people who are looking at the shared desktop will hardly ever see any interaction, but rather slow screen paints of a screen once it has settled down on the presenter's side. There's significant latency. I also didn't see a way to hand control of the desktop to another participant.

I think the best it could be used for currently is to present static slides (PPT or PDF) or very static screens. If you're trying to present interactive pages or user interface ideas or interactions, I can't see how Dimdim would possibly fill your needs.

Dimdim Strengths

The strengths of Dimdim are that 1) it's very easy to start an account and host a meeting 2) the process to join a meeting could not be simpler 3) there are many hosting configurations to suit a variety of needs 4) It's free to very affordable depending upon your meeting sizes.

Would I trust Dimdim to present a product rollout to 500 sales people? No. Would I trust it for an internal collaboration tool? Certainly. Perhaps over the next year or two, it will be a worthy competitor to the commercial web-conferencing tools.

About me

I'm an independent consultant who used to do a lot of work for OpenLogic. I greatly appreciate OpenLogic and the mission they are fulfilling as well as their willingness to let me contribute to this blog. Views expressed here are not necessarily those of OpenLogic and any mistakes are 100% attributable to me. You can contact me at: landon at 360vl dot com or visit
Posted: 9/10/2008 5:42:54 PM by Global Administrator | with 0 comments

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