Meet Me in Cyberspace

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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. In sales for many years, he grew weary of traveling to meetings, and in 1996 he co-founded San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx, one of the leaders in virtual meeting technology.

Now, armed only with his 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. Concurrently, they can converse and in some cases, even see each other via video. Over the phone lines, 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. Jacobs was no newcomer to the idea of virtual meetings, though. For years, the company has installed video conferencing equipment at its largest offices to enhance communication between its far-flung operations. Jacobs employees also used Microsoft's NetMeeting--a part of Microsoft Office--and was installed on many employees' computers.

But WebEx is different, says Jacobs' Web Technology Manager Kappie Mumphrey. Employees who had been using NetMeeting are jumping to WebEx, she says, because of its heightened performance, stability and convenience. "With WebEx, there's no need to install software on employees' computers and configure it on our system," she says. "Since it's available through a browser, even employees at project sites, with no access to the Jacobs WAN, can use it." In fact, Mumphrey recently participated in a WebEx meeting with co-workers in Pasadena (to watch a software demo) from her home in Louisiana. "With NetMeeting, I always had to be in the office."

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). A more common term for data conferencing is Web conferencing, though 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.

Large companies have installed video conferencing equipment in their conference rooms for more than a decade. Likewise, audio conferencing has become a common way for companies to communicate with far-flung employees or facilitate their quarterly earnings calls with financial analysts. 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. "That'll be a watershed moment for real-time collaboration," he says.

Depending on your goals, technical infrastructure and audience, one of the three RTC options may work better than the others. David Collinge of Astound, a Toronto-based Web conferencing provider, which was recently purchased by French Telecom Genesys, says each type of meeting has its place. In his previous job, Collinge worked with video conferencing equipment. High bandwidth lines and necessary equipment for video conferencing cost a fortune, he says, and you can't transmit much data.

"I used video conferencing for two years, and we didn't get much beyond talking heads," he says. However, there are times when that might be necessary. 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, leaving the three alternative methods. 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 the high-bandwidth lines becomes 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. "You can list the meeting on the Web site, which would be good for a product launch meeting you wanted a lot of people to attend. Or if it's a private meeting to close a deal, where you and your client need to review a Word document, for example, you would make the meeting unlisted and password protected."

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 are about 600 KB and take about 15 seconds to download over an office connection or one minute over a 56 KB modem," Thompson says. WebEx is platform independent so that PC, Mac and Unix users can all participate. After the initial set-up, attendees just click on the "Join a Meeting" link, enter the meeting number and click "Join." Although there are differences, 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. Excite@Home uses Placeware Conference Center mainly for software training, such as teaching customer service reps how to use a new call center application, or updating HR personnel about a new benefits package. The company is also experimenting with Placeware to train new subscribers about using Web site functions, such as e-mail, says development manager Al Sallette. Students are spread across North America, and in some cases even overseas.

Excite offers Web conferencing over its own broadband network, which allows the inclusion of video if necessary. 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. At the start of the meeting, presenter and students log onto the Internet. The conference usually starts with PowerPoint slides used by the presenter as an overview of the topics to be covered. The leader can demonstrate the software and turn it over to the students to offer practice time. On the students' screen, a live and slightly off-center video image of the presenter appears 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," Sallette says. And, when making changes to the Web site, the lead time is short. "Sometimes we have two weeks between the time product development is done and the time the new site is launched."

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. The first is a conference-style meeting in which users make a one-way slide presentation to a large group of attendees. The second is a collaborative meeting, where users share information with a small group of people, such as sales prospects or team members working on a project.

"Ten people is the critical mass," says Placeware's Janice Kapner, director of marketing communications. For meetings with more than 10 people, Placeware offers Conference Center with a private chat feature. Placeware considers itself an expert in the large event space. "We can scale up to 2,500 concurrent connections," Kapner says. 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. "Web conferencing is an incredibly powerful tool," says Brett Butler, director of e-business development. "But it is a new technology, so the vendors with the state of the art will change over time." Butler says he will probably always have two vendors under evaluation.

Lexmark's entire sales force is equipped with either Placeware or Astound. Salespeople use Placeware for external customer presentations--usually of PowerPoint slides. They use Astound's application sharing function to demonstrate to customers how the company's printer management software works. "We sell direct to large accounts," Butler says. "For those customers, the salesperson already has an established relationship. The salesperson can call up the customer, exchange pleasantries, and then, over the phone, the salesperson can invite the customer to a Web conference. 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."

Lexmark is also testing virtual meeting technology for in-house sales use. At a recent district sales meeting, Lexmark placed 100 locations on a conference call, but also asked 20 of them to log onto an online meeting. The district sales manager talked for 30 minutes, and those on the Web conference could also see some PowerPoint slides. "They thought it was just great to have the visual aid of the PowerPoint slide," Butler says. "That's part of the basics of effective presentation: always have a visual aid."

Web conferencing offers various additional features beyond making a presentation and fielding questions from the audience. It 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. "In addition to PowerPoint slides, we used polling to get the opinions of the audience," says Ron Miazga, director of learning services. "Then the sales manager did a Web tour and took them live to show the features of the site."

Web conferencing is also great for prospecting, says Butler, because employees can print out reports after a meeting listing attendees' names and e-mail addresses. "I myself have gone to Web seminars, filled out a form and within 24 hours received a call from a telemarketer."

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. "It used to be that you'd e-mail a document to meeting participants and then say over the phone, 'look at paragraph 2, line 3,' for example," Butler says. "That was a difficult conversation to have. When the application is on screen, you can highlight a section and everyone is looking at the same thing."

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." Thompson uses video when he runs his weekly staff meetings on WebEx over a DSL line from his home in the San Francisco area. "I bring up a video image of myself for a minute at the beginning of the meeting to make it seem like I'm there [in the San Jose office]," he says. "Then I kill it."

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. "If you need to sign a sales contract, then you bring up Word and edit the contract. If you need to tweak pricing, then you bring up Excel. If a customer has a problem with an application, you take over his copy and fix it." 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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