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Collaboration: Web conferencing spans the distance

Relatively easy to install and use, Web conferencing is a very horizontal application that can be used to support collaboration for product development, sales briefings, executive meetings and training, among other functions. The key elements in Web conferencing are the ability to display and annotate slides, documents or other application screens; to send text messages; to use a whiteboard for writing or drawing; and to accompany presentations with audio, either by teleconference or VOIP. The Radicati Group predicts robust growth in this market, with an increase from about $500 million in 2003 to over $2 billion in 2007.

Web conferencing has its roots in technology that predates the Internet, on systems that sent instant messages in a mainframe environment. It evolved through groupware, most significantly Lotus Notes. PlaceWare was developed by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for Web conferencing. It was purchased by Microsoft, and in the 1990s, reintroduced as NetMeeting. Another early commercial product and the current market leader in Web conferencing is WebEx, introduced in 1996.

Best Software offers an extensive line of business software for small to midsize companies. "We use WebEx in literally every department, from corporate communications to product development, sales and legal," says Steve Thiessen, WebEx administrator/project manager at Best Software. Having grown through acquisition, its divisions and subsidiaries are scattered throughout the world; its own parent company, Sage Group, is based in Newcastle, England. Thus, the company was an ideal candidate for a software solution that would help span the distances. An evaluation team reviewed the options and selected WebEx, launching it in 2003.

When the legal department uses WebEx, users can put contracts or other documents that need modifications onto the screen so everyone can view them. Lawyers from both sides can then discuss changes and make them online in real time. Control can be given to either party to make the changes, and the original document being changed can reside on either machine. The final version can be transferred with WebEx to all attendees. Every sales department meeting at Best Software is held as a Web conference and is recorded for later viewing by individuals who want to review the meeting or were not able to attend.

Best's product lines are designed for end-to-end functionality; for example, its real estate products support the preliminary stages of construction such as preparing estimates, project management during construction and, once the building is completed, property management. The software products are continually modified and extended.

"We can do software usability studies even when the product developers are in one location and the business analysts are in another," says Thiessen. "Before we began using WebEx, we had to find a local facility and fly everyone in to the same place."

One of the features sought by the company was the ability to record a session offline as well as online, and save it for use at a later time. Thiessen used that capability in order to educate employees about the use of WebEx itself. He set up a series of presentations about the product for various departments, with each presentation tailored to be department-specific. For example, the HR presentation showed how WebEx could be used to support new hires or carry out other functions of the department. No charges are incurred for using the offline recording facility, although Best does opt to purchase access and streaming services from WebEx for delivery of recorded sessions.

"Web conferencing is not the total answer to any business function any more than search is," notes David Knight, senior director of product management at WebEx. "But it is a key enabler." Very few companies today build anything in isolation, Knight observes. A pharmaceutical company might work with a biotechnology company that is working on basic research, and then with another organization that is conducting clinical trials. Being able to illustrate points by sharing PowerPoint briefings or writing on a whiteboard keeps development moving at a much faster pace.

Web conferencing seems to find increasing use in unexpected ways once it gets into an organization, in contrast to products that start off strong but later become shelfware because they are cumbersome or do not integrate well with a user's daily tasks. Sun Microsystems selected Elluminate primarily to deliver training, but even before the training modules were ready, it found use as a collaboration tool by several departments.

"We have many situations where Web conferencing is useful, both in formal meetings and in informal work sessions," says James Wagner, program manager for Sun's live virtual classroom.

One of the first uses of Elluminate for collaboration at Sun was for weekly core product meetings. It has also been popular with executives for large monthly meetings. The executives like the way Elluminate allows the group to interact as a whole, then form multiple breakout groups for discussions and reconvene. In a typical informal situation, two employees might be on the phone discussing some financial data and want to look at a related spreadsheet on screen. Having the data visible to both people reduces the chances of misunderstanding and speeds up communication.

Java-based Elluminate works in any Java environment and is therefore platform-independent, working on Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris operating systems. "The cross-platform abilities of Elluminate are very useful to us," notes Wagner. "Our environment is very heterogeneous, with high-end Solaris computers as well as the SunRay workstations." Wagner also found the VOIP quality to be high, even over a dialup connection.

The cross-platform capability is important in engineering environments, according to Rajeev Arora, VP for strategy and business development at Elluminate. "In the research environment, many computers use UNIX or Linux operating systems," he says. "With Elluminate, they can participate fully as presenters and interactively as part of the audience without any modification of the software."

Arora believes that one barrier to wider use of Web conferencing is that people underestimate the level of interactivity that is possible. "When I run Web conferences, I put a map on the screen and each attendee draws an arrow from their location to ours," he says. "It gets people involved right away." Until users experience whiteboarding, polling, and application sharing, it is difficult to get a feel for the impact.

Elluminate uses a pricing model in which licenses are issued for either a given number of seats or concurrent seats, and no hourly charges are incurred. That model is a good match for situations in which users want conferencing on all day and use it on an impromptu basis. It also is offered either as a hosted solution or as an enterprise product installed and managed on-site. VOIP is included in the cost of licensing.

Groove Virtual Office from Groove Networks presents yet a third option to the hosted and server-based solutions. Recently purchased by Microsoft (see "Finding a New Groove," KMWorld, May 2005, page 1), Groove uses a peer-to-peer model. Its software is installed on the desktop, and users can then share files, hold meetings and track projects.

"Groove is very easy to use," says Ryan Hoppe, marketing manager for Groove Networks. "Participants are invited to join a workspace via an instant message. They download an encrypted copy of Groove and can begin collaborating immediately."

Each user has an individual copy of the workspace, which is updated by Groove as changes (such as revisions to documents) are made. If a user is offline, a relay server sends along any changes to the user's workspace when the user logs on again. Conversely, if changes are made by a user working offline, they are held in a local queue on the PC and then pushed out into the workspace the next time that user logs on.

Because Groove uses a peer-to-peer model and is designed as a virtual workspace, the functionality of Web conferencing is achieved in a different way than with other conferencing solutions.

"Each of the users already has a set of common documents," continues Hoppe, "so in the case of Groove, users are not sharing their screens but are in fact viewing changes to each of their copies in real time." For example, if two users are working on an MS Word document, it will appear on both screens, and they can discuss it using VOIP, make changes and save the document again. VOIP is built in and because the virtual workspace is persistent, it can be activated at any time by any users who are online. Any user can present a PowerPoint briefing to session participants and can narrate the presentation. A workspace tool also allows co-browsing on the Internet.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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