Web Conferencing Comes of Age

When trudging through yet another airport on your way to meet a client, do you ever wonder if there's a better way to meet? Subrah Iyar did. Weary of traveling to sales meetings, he co-founded San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx in 1996, one of the leaders in virtual meeting technology.

Now, using only an Internet connection and a browser, he and thousands of virtual meeting attendees can share data, such as a PowerPoint presentation or a software application, in real time. They can converse or even see each other via video. By phone. the Internet or private broadband networks, attendees can meet and greet customers, present to prospects and collaborate with colleagues without ever flying to meet them. In short, they don't have to be there.

Jacobs Engineering Group, a Pasadena, Calif.-based provider of professional technical services, is a recent convert to WebEx. The company had already installed video conferencing applications to serve its largest offices and Microsoft's NetMeeting was installed on many employees' computers.

ButWebEx is different, says Jacobs' Web Technology Manager Kappie Mumphrey. Employees are jumping to WebEx, she says, because of its heightened performance, stability and convenience. There is no need to install it on separate workstations and since it's available through a browser, it can be accessed by employees outside the office, she says.

Many Flavors
As the Jacobs case shows, virtual meetings come in many flavors. Real-time collaboration (RTC), as the experts call it, falls into three categories: audio conferencing (over the phone), video conferencing (over dedicated room-based systems) and data conferencing (over a personal computer). Although data conferencing is often called Web conferencing, this is somewhat of a misnomer because a Web conference often happens on an internal local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN) or virtual private network (VPN) and never touches the public Internet.

The Web conferencing category is broken down into two types: traditional shrink-wrapped software, such as NetMeeting, installed on a network; and hosted offerings, such as WebEx, that don't need to be installed within a firewall. Collaborative strategies, a San Francisco-based collaboration consultant, has published The Real Time Collaboration Industry Report, which details the categories of virtual meetings. For information about the report, visit www.collaborate.com.

Video and audio conferencing have both found a place in long-distance collaboration for well over a decade. But the new kid on the block is Web conferencing, says Lewis Ward, of Collaborative strategies. Growing by 74 percent per year, Web conferencing will overtake audio and video conferencing by the end of 2003, Ward predicts.

Which of the three RTC options works best for you will depend on your goals, technical infrastructure and audience, says David Collinge of Astound, a Toronto-based Web conferencing provider, which was recently purchased by French Telecom Genesys. High bandwidth lines and necessary equipment for video conferencing cost a fortune, he says, and you can't transmit much data.

Collinge says Web conferencing, on the other hand, is more content oriented and is useful when you need to walk someone through an application or visit a Web site together--a technique not achieved with old-fashioned audio or video conferencing.

Currently, bandwidth restrictions limit the quality of audio and video over the Internet. Though audio and video are technically possible in a Web conference, the quality is usually insufficient for enterprise use. Most companies currently holding Web conferences use the computer to transfer data and the phone to hear the audio portion of the meeting. (For the most part, they don't use video.) However, as high-bandwidth lines become more available over the next few years, audio, video and data will increasingly converge.

Keep in mind, though, if you opt to talk over the Internet--with Voice-over Internet Protocol instead of over the phone--you'll need sound cards and microphones installed on your PCs. For video, you'll need a Webcam perched on the monitor to capture your image, and those watching you will need multimedia software, such as RealPlayer, to play the video.

This Meeting is Now in Session
So how do users set up a Web conference? Many who have say it couldn't be easier.

When registering at www.webex.com (one-time and corporate users have their own URL, such as www.oracle.webex.com), users enter their names and e-mail addresses in an online form, then choose an ID and password. Next they click on a link to create a meeting. (WebEx assigns a meeting a number and password for privacy.) Then they click "start now" to begin, or they can schedule a meeting for a later date and send e-mail invitations to the participants.

"We offer different levels of security, depending on the type of meeting," says David Thompson, vice president of marketing at WebEx. For example, a product launch announcement could be open to the public, but a more private meeting would be unlisted and password protected, he says.

When first-time users click "start," WebEx identifies their computer's operating system and installs a Windows browser plug-in or a Java client. The plug-ins download in less than a minute on a 56K modem, Thompson says. WebEx is platform independent so that PC, Mac and Unix users can all participate. After the initial set-up, attendees enter the meeting number and join in. Other hosted Web conferencing providers have equally easy set-up scenarios.

Redwood City, Calif.-based broadband provider Excite@Home is using Web conferencing software from Mountain View, Calif.-based Placeware mainly for software training. The company is also experimenting with Placeware to train new subscribers across North America and overseas about using Web site functions, such as e-mail, says development manager Al Sallette.

Excite offers Web conferencing over its own video-capable broadband network. In a typical online class, the presenter is at a computer attached to the Internet. He or she organizes a time slot for the training and a group signs up. Presenter and students log into the session, and the conference usually starts with the presenter's PowerPoint overview of the topics to be covered. The leader can demonstrate the software and turn it over to the students to offer practice time. The students see a live and slightly off-center video image of the presenter below the PowerPoint slides. The presenter ends the meeting with a Q&A session. "We always ask questions to make sure they understand," Sallette says.

Excite@Home representatives say Placeware is an easy-to-use and inexpensive method of training and communicating with employees. "At first, we were a start-up with no means to fly trainers around the country," and when making changes to the Web site, the lead time is short, Sallette says.

What Virtual Meetings Can Do for You
Depending on the purpose and size of your virtual meeting, the functions you use will differ.

Collinge says there are two types of online meetings. In a conference-style meeting, users make a one-way slide presentation to a large group of attendees. In a collaborative meeting, users share information with a small group of people, such as sales prospects or team members working on a project.

For meetings with more than 10 people, Placeware offers Conference Center with a private chat feature, which can operate up to 2,500 concurrent connections, says Placeware's Janice Kapner, director of marketing communications. For less than 10 people, Kapner recommends Placeware's new product, Meeting Center, which boasts two-way application sharing.

Lexington, Ky.-based printer supplier Lexmark uses both Placeware and Astound for communication, e-learning and sales demos. Because of the changing technology of Web conferencing, Brett Butler, director of e-business development, says he will probably always have two vendors under evaluation.

Lexmark's salespeople use Placeware for external customer presentations--usually of PowerPoint slides. They use Astound's application sharing function to demonstrate the company's printer management software to customers, especially to large-scale customers with previous relationships. "I tell our sales force that an online meeting is similar to a conference call, but [the ability to exchange data] gives the call more impact."

Web conferencing also allows the meeting host to lead attendees on a Web site tour. This ability was useful to Kirkland, Wash.-based chemical distributor Van Waters & Rogers when it was introducing its new e-commerce site to the sales force. During a recent two-week period the company hosted 10 shows a week to introduce the site to 400 salespeople. The shows incorporated PowerPoint slides, opinion polls and product demonstrations, says Ron Miazga, director of learning services.

Web conferencing is also a great prospecting tool, says Butler, because employees can print out reports after a meeting listing attendees' names and e-mail addresses.

For small, collaborative meetings, a whiteboard function lets participants jot down thoughts. And with application sharing of software, such as Excel or Word, users can point to items on the screen and highlight them.

Live video is icing on the cake for most companies. "People think it's important," says WebEx's Thompson, "but we find that what they really care about is listening and showing."

To use or not to use video is less a question of bandwidth than a question of what people need to do in a meeting, he says. People need to focus on what they're trying to accomplish, he says, and not get distracted by video bells and whistles.

The Price You Pay
The cost for a Web meeting varies from nothing (WebEx and Astound are some of the vendors who offer limited functionality for very small groups for free), to several hundred dollars per seat. Small businesses might find it less expensive to pay per use. Prices start at 35 cents per minute and vary, depending on which functions are used. Opting for the audio portion through a teleconferencing service offered by companies, such as AT&T or MCI, will also add to the cost. Some Web conferencing vendors allow companies to book conference calls through them at a reduced cost.

Jacobs' Mumphrey hasn't calculated ROI per se, but as she sees it, "For each meeting, at least one person is not having to travel. If you estimate that each trip costs about $1,500, and you have 10 meetings per month, in that time you've saved $15,000." Jacobs averages 12 meetings per month, and use is constantly rising. Mumphrey figures Jacobs recouped its investment in the first one or two months. "It's paid for," she says. "Now, the more we use it, the less it costs."

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