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(Live)Meeting in a Virtual World. No, Not that Kind

There was a time when I visited the Microsoft campus or a Seattle-area Microsoft event about six times a year. During this same time period, I would typically meet with various groups from Microsoft at restaurants and hotel conference rooms in and around Boston. More recently, those meetings have occurred at my home. Some of these meetings are now infamous for various reasons. There was the time I met with a Microsoft group that shall not be named, Mafia-like, in the back of a stretch limousine in the square near my home because the local coffee shop was too crowded. And a certain Microsoft representative still insists that I once wore pajamas to a meeting at my home. (I didn't. Really.)

Those days, alas, are coming to a close. And it's not because there's been any rift between myself and the software giant. Instead, a perfect storm of high gas prices and improved technology has rendered in-face meetings, if not obsolete, at least far less frequent. Don't get me wrong, nothing beats extending a hand across a table and making human contact with another individual. It's just happening a lot less than it used to.

Microsoft has long used its LiveMeeting products to perform virtual meetings, which usually involve some combination of internet-streamed Office PowerPoint presentations and demos as well as phone-based audio. And Microsoft's not alone, of course: Its partners and competitors use LiveMeeting and similar products for the same reasons, and I've personally participated on the other end of this type of conversation, giving or taking part in presentations on behalf of Windows IT Pro, Microsoft, HP, and others. It's amazing technology.

What's happened, however, is that the frequency of these virtual meetings has overtaken the frequency of real life meetings. It began with the occasional canceling of a Microsoft trip out east (I live near Boston) and requests about whether a virtual LiveMeeting-based meeting would be an acceptable alternative. (Of course.) On the flipside, I've noticed in my own business travel experiences that tightening schedules and accelerating travel costs have kept me away from the Seattle area for quite some time this year. In fact, during a three-month period in which I was updating my Windows Vista book and didn't travel at all, I took part in dozens of LiveMeeting-based virtual meetings. I didn't miss a thing, news-wise, even though I never left my house.

LiveMeeting with a presentation shown.

Of course, I did miss some things. As alluded to previously, there's something indefinable about an in-person meeting that can't be duplicated virtually. It's the same sort of impersonal quality to all electronic communication types--be it email, IM, or even a LiveMeeting--that leads to misunderstandings. Subtle humor doesn't translate well over the Internet, for example. And missing visual cues that are normally transparent and obvious during in-person meetings become an obvious issue in the virtual world.

Still, one gets the feeling that technology will eventually obviate many of these problems as well. The use of video conferencing is a big plus, as just seeing the speaker often delivers the missing cues you're inwardly seeking. And last week I had what is, to date, the most astonishing LiveMeeting yet, a "virtual reviewer's workshop" for SQL Server 2008 over multiple hours, in which there were several speakers, all providing their own presentations and software demonstrations. And when it was over, we participated in a virtual hands-on lab where we got to work with the software virtually and run through some of the demos on our own. It was like participating in an Isaac Asimov short story.

A live software demo in LiveMeeting.

Virtual meetings will never fully replace in-person meetings. But with gas prices and travel costs soaring, it's nice that we have a usable and inexpensive alternative. Sure, my trips out to Redmond might continue to get less and less frequent. I'm OK with that as long as they don't stop all-together. But now I really can wear pajamas to meetings, and no one will know the difference.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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