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Meet Me on the Web

A distributed global work force can collaborate efficiently and cost-effectively

As enterprises grow and partners and employees become more dispersed and mobile, maintaining communication and collaboration becomes increasingly important—and difficult. Meanwhile, travel and off-site meetings are falling victim to cost cutting. In this landscape, remote conferencing tools break down geographic barriers and allow companies to more easily and inexpensively connect with partners, vendors, service providers, customers, and employees. Audio conferencing is widely used today, but more and more businesses are discovering the additional advantages offered by Web-conferencing solutions.

Although the Web-conferencing market is still young, recent acquisitions by Cisco Systems (of WebEx Communications) and Adobe Systems (of Macromedia Breeze) indicate that it's already beginning to consolidate. But a dizzying array of deployment and pricing models, integrated services, and collaboration features continue to make it difficult for businesses to settle on a viable long-term solution.

Service or Software?
Web-conferencing solutions are available either as a hosted service (i.e., Software as a Service—SaaS) or as a purchased technology that you install in-house. To decide between the two and achieve the best ROI, organizations need to consider the number of employees who will use the solution, the number of concurrent seat licenses needed, and how much time is spent in conferences.

With SaaS, up-front expenses are nonexistent or minimal, there is no charge for upgrades or new features, and companies aren't locked into a particular software. SaaS solutions typically charge either a per-user, per-minute fee or a flat-rate, unlimited-use fee for a specified amount of time. Small-to-midsized businesses with low usage levels and companies that are evaluating conferencing solutions are likely better off with a hosted service.

Purchasing Web-conferencing technology and equipment is usually the way to go for companies that have high usage levels. Up-front costs are significant, but over time, companies avoid the spiraling usage costs of SaaS. In-house solutions offer more control over application performance, availability, and—because the application is installed inside the organization's firewall—security. Further, organizations that want to integrate their conferencing solution with crucial business applications, such as customer relationship management, ERP, information management, and project management, will find that managing the integration is easier if they have an in-house solution. Although recent Gartner research shows that 70 percent to 80 percent of Web conferences use SaaS, Gartner expects that percentage to drop in favor of more on-site solutions because of cost, reliability, and security concerns.

Quite a few vendors make their Web-conferencing solutions available both as a hosted service and as standalone software, letting companies choose the model that best suits their needs. Microsoft, for one, will offer a hosted model for its Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 (which is due to ship this fall) as well as a standalone solution, which will be marketed as Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. Cisco's WebEx Meeting Center and Adobe Acrobat Connect (formerly Macromedia Breeze Meeting Center) are also available in both forms. And Interwise offers not only hosted-service and standalone versions of its Interwise Connect product, but also a hybrid solution that lets you seamlessly fail over to the host-based version should your in-house application fail, and vice versa.

Some Web-conferencing providers offer a pay-as-you-go option. This no-subscription, no-seat-license, no-minimum-usage-fee plan is an attractive alternative for small businesses or organizations that conduct few online meetings. Examples include the Meeting On Now service, which lets you reserve a "meeting room" for $12.50 per day, and Unlimited Conferencing, which offers a pay-as-you-go service for 14.9 cents per minute per participant.

Virtually Speaking
Most organizations begin looking at Web conferencing when their needs expand beyond the capabilities of their voice-conferencing system. Companies that simply want to add Web conferencing functionality to their telephone conferencing system can contract with a service provider to add the Web component to their existing audio conferencing solution. Another option is to connect a purchased in-house Webconferencing application to the corporate phone system, which adds voice capabilities. Sonexis ConferenceManager offers a twist on this model: an audio-conferencing bridge with built-in plug and-play Web-conferencing capabilities.

Increasingly, solution providers are integrating audio with Web conferencing, giving users a choice of audio-only conferencing or integrated audio and Web conferencing. For example, Citrix Online's Citrix GoToMeeting includes a conference call service, which provides a phone number that meeting participants can dial to join the conference. Participants are charged their standard long-distance rate for the call.

VoIP is also becoming more widespread in conferencing solutions. In addition to its low cost, VoIP lets participants listen over a phone or directly through their computer, depending on the service and equipment used. Solutions that provide audio conferencing via both VoIP and telephone allow users who don't have Internet access to participate in meetings, even though they can't see any online content. (They could, however, work with an offline Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.) Adobe Acrobat Connect, Live Meeting 2007, Elluminate Live!, eBLVD Online Meetings, Interwise Connect, and WebEx Meeting Center all offer both traditional voice communication and VoIP. Such solutions let users switch from telephone to VoIP at any time. For example, attendees who join a meeting while away from the office can switch to another phone or VoIP when they return to their desk. Unless your bandwidth or equipment won't support it, you should consider a conferencing tool that provides VoIP functionality.

Converging Technologies
In the coming years, communication technologies—email, IM, voice, Web conferencing, collaboration tools—will begin to converge into a comprehensive unified communications (UC) platform. Gartner defines UC products (equipment, software, and services) as those that "enhance individual, workgroup, and organizational productivity by enabling and facilitating the control, management, integration, and use of multiple enterprise communication methods. UC products achieve this through the convergence and integration of communication channels, networks, systems, and business applications."

Under UC, audio and Web conferencing solutions will converge and include integrated presence information, letting users initiate an IM session, switch to audio or Web interaction, then invite other people into the conversation and seamlessly switch to a live conference. Microsoft is spearheading the push toward integrating conferencing functionality into the enterprise communications architecture. Live Meeting 2007 integrates multiple communication channels, including VoIP and Public Switched Telephone Network audio, chat, audience feedback tools, screen and document sharing, and live and recorded video.

Interwise is another leader in this area. Vice President of Marketing Neil Lieberman told me that the barriers between voice and Web communications are melting, and the trend is toward consolidation so that organizations have fewer products to buy and support. Interwise Connect combines voice, Web, and video conferencing into one product that uses a single data stream. Lieberman said the company's goal is to consolidate multiple communication and conferencing tools into one product and transform conferencing into a company wide core business application for all employees, like email is today.

Companies looking for a new conferencing solution should keep this trend in mind and plan accordingly. To map out a migration to UC, companies need to outline their current and future performance needs, scalability requirements, user expectations, integration with other business systems, and compatibility with legacy equipment.

Enterprises that want to wait until the UC technologies and markets mature might consider a short-term hosted service or pay as-you-go solution. When the time comes to purchase a solution, they can use their experience to select one that meets their needs.

Organizations that are planning to update a company wide communications system certainly need to look at solutions that combine their voice and data networks. Thanks to the ease of integrating IP communications and traditional telecommunications systems, those companies will be able to to make the move in phases, minimizing user disruption and spreading the expense over time.

Ease of Use
Usability is key to a solution's success, making it one of the primary factors to consider when comparing Web-conferencing solutions. Does the service or product let you easily schedule meetings and invite guests using preferred desktop tools such as email and calendar applications? Does it have an intuitive UI that requires little training? Is it easy to deploy and manage? A tool that's difficult to use, manage, or maintain or that requires substantial training or IT involvement will dilute the solution's benefits and cost savings.

Citrix GoToMeeting is one of the easiest Web-conferencing tools to use and administer, and Sonexis's plug-and-play ConferenceManager is easy to set up and use. Other solutions known for their ease of use are WebEx Meeting Center and SiteScape Zon, both of which let you simply click a URL to download the conferencing client and begin a conference—no installation or maintenance is necessary.

Just the Basics
Basic features that every service or product should offer include broad Web-browser support, good security, and scalability. Additional features can mean additional complexity, so you should select only the functionality you need, especially if the vendor charges more for certain features or services.

An online conferencing application needs to support common Web browsers, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, and should provide integrated audio or support for third-party audio providers. Look for easy-to-use scheduling and invitation options, preferably through integration with common email and calendaring programs.

If you're considering a SaaS solution, make sure it provides the level of security you need. At the least, the service should offer Secure Sockets Layer or Transport Layer Security, 128bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption, and access controls such as secure logon, participant lists, one-time meeting IDs, and meeting passwords. If you buy a standalone solution, it will run within your organizational firewall, so you'll have total control of the application's security.

The solution you choose should also scale to fit your requirements. Does it need to support only meetings with fewer than 10 participants, or do you plan to hold large-scale presentations with hundreds of attendees?

Desirable Features
In addition to those basic features and considerations, some other components are widely considered to be must-haves. Probably the most basic and important of those is the ability to present slides, typically through PowerPoint.

Document-sharing functionality lets meeting participants collaborate in real time on documents, spreadsheets, and graphics. The most convenient method for sharing documents is to have one copy in a secure, private online meeting space and let meeting participants change and annotate that copy so you don't have to deal with multiple uploaded versions.

Desktop sharing lets the meeting host show anything on his or her computer to remote conference attendees. Most applications let presenters choose whether to share their entire screen or only a portion of it to keep the audience focused on key information. Desktop sharing is especially useful for interactive software demos.

Application sharing lets the host share any application on his or her computer desktop with participants. If this feature interests you, be aware that because it places a high demand on users' PCs, it might not be feasible for all users.

A whiteboard feature can be very valuable, especially when people meet to collaborate on a project. A whiteboard is a blank page that lets presenters draw diagrams and write notes on the screen—a useful capability for brainstorming sessions or for highlighting specific features of a presentation. Features that support participant annotation let attendees mark up the whiteboard presentation, often using a unique user-specific color.

Bells and Whistles
To get the most benefit from your conference solution, you might want even more features. Depending on how you expect to use the product, the following capabilities might be as essential as the basics, or they might simply be fluff that you'll rarely use:
Audience monitoring. Most Web-conferencing applications have a window that lists attendees and their Web and audio status, and many let the host monitor who enters the conference and bounce unwanted attendees.
Co-browsing. A co-browsing feature lets members of a Web conference simultaneously view the same Web page as the presenter or moderator. Co-browsing can distract users from the presentation, so make sure you can disable this feature if necessary.
IM and chat. Chats allow real-time, private communication among attendees and presenters. Some applications provide private virtual meeting rooms in which two or more attendees can conduct a side-meeting via IM. IM and chats can also be distracting, so you'll want to be able to turn off this feature if necessary.
Polls. Polls let presenters survey audience members for real-time feedback. Some solutions can present the results to attendees as graphs and charts.
Ad hoc meetings. Many applications require you to set up and schedule the conference and invite attendees in advance, but one trend is to allow ad hoc meetings from within applications such as email, IM, or your phone system. This capability lets you begin a meeting spontaneously and, if integrated with presence information, invite the appropriate attendees.
Ongoing meetings. With ongoing-meeting functionality, virtual meeting rooms can retain all meeting documents, annotations, edits, whiteboard content, and text brain-storming sessions, letting you reconvene an interrupted meeting and providing a convenient way to store and reuse conference materials.
Record and replay. The ability to record and archive Web conferences lets people who couldn't attend the meeting access the session later to see what they missed, making it easier and quicker for interested parties to bring themselves up-to-date. Recorded meetings are also useful for future reference.
Branding. A branding feature lets companies customize the logon page and other areas with logos, pictures, colors, and fonts.
Video. Some applications let participants who have WebCams see each other.

That high-level overview of the types of features and functionality in today's Webconferencing tools should give you an idea of which ones are important to your organization. Different solutions provide various combinations of these features, either built in or for an added charge, and implement them with varying degrees of usability and robustness. Most solutions offer a free trial version or a free demo so you can try before you buy.

Sparking Ideas
The pricing or licensing model and how well the application integrates with existing hardware and software might be more important to you than the specific feature set, but understanding the range of functionality available can spark ideas for leveraging a conferencing solution for maximum benefit and productivity. Although use scenarios are beyond the scope of this article, activities such as employee training, sales presentations, line-of-business collaboration, project development, and brainstorming are among the most common. Organizations that rely solely on traditional linear methods of communication—such as face-to-face, phone, fax, voicemail, and email for such activities—fail to take advantage of the rich media opportunities that Web conferencing can provide. As the technology continues to evolve, it will become an indispensable tool for enhancing collaboration and productivity and minimizing communication costs.

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