Macromedia is planning to enter the tough Web conferencing market in March, with an updated release of its little-known Breeze software.

Previously, Breeze has only been used for creating presentations that can be viewed online but the new version will see the company expand into live conferences. This will bring them up against Web conferencing leader WebEx, as well as Microsoft and Cisco.

The March release will feature white boarding, polling and application sharing, making the product a fully-fledged Web conferencing tool, said Leesa Lee, senior product manager at Macromedia in San Francisco.

Macromedia is hoping that its ubiquitous Flash player will help it break into the crowded Web conferencing market. Over 98 percent of Internet users already have Flash installed, removing the need for an additional download to use the Breeze Web conferencing product. This sets it apart from competitors, claims Macromedia.

However, with WebEx’s years of experience and market share plus Microsoft’s and Cisco’s determination, Macromedia will not find things easy.

Moving into the Web conferencing arena is a departure from Macromedia's traditional software business, said Paul Ritter, program manager for collaboration research at The Yankee Group in Boston.

"Entering the Web conferencing marketplace is not a guaranteed slam dunk. They will have to do significant marketing and advertising to let the world know that they are in this space," Ritter said. "However, I do believe they have a chance to compete because of some of the features and functionalities of Breeze that are different."

Macromedia is promoting the software's ability to archive presentations for on-demand playback, as well as a searchable library that will provide easy access to existing content, custom online meeting room layouts and an extensible architecture that will allow users to make Breeze part of their own infrastructure, such as corporate portals, Lee said.

The worldwide market was estimated at $480 million (£260m) in 2003 and is expected to grow to some $700 million (£375m) this year.

Macromedia plans to offer Breeze conferencing as both a hosted service and a software product that business users can install and run themselves. The hosted service will cost $84 per concurrent seat per month, and a perpetual license for the software starts at $22,500 including 25 concurrent seats, Lee said.

The company is aiming first at North America and Breeze will initially be available in English only. However, Macromedia will sell it to interested international customers, Lee said: "We're just starting to get noticed and obviously we have a long way to go.”