Conferencing has taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of streaming Web video and presentation tools. You can now hook up practically any combination of participants — clients in one city, sales reps in another and the home office in a third — through such services as the WebEx Meeting Center and PlaceWare Conference Center. The same thing goes for distance learning and training applications.
Many of these services are even free for occasional small-group meetings, although you can get the most out of them with regular use, since people become familiar with the systems and learn how use all their features. And those features are mushrooming. In addition to slideshows, whiteboards, audioconferencing, videoconferencing and document collaboration, all available with standard videoconferencing systems, the Web experience is enhanced with surf-along tools, audience polling, instant messaging and chat among participants, e-mail and more.
To truly put these systems through their paces, you'll need high-bandwidth Internet connections, such as DSL, T1 or T3 lines. If you don't, the first thing to go is usually the videoconferencing aspect. Slideshows, document collaboration and audio feeds can happen even with 56K dial-up modem connections. In some systems the audio portion of the presentation is carried across a separate phone connection, a handicap if you're logging in from your hotel room.
Other things to look for in Web meeting services are security procedures (you don't want your competitors listening in!), scheduling, contact-management tools and multiplatform support (Macintosh, Windows, Unix). Finally, some services can be branded or hosted on your own site, so you can customize the features and interface to match your corporate identity and conferencing needs.
Traditional videoconferencing systems are still around, of course, and when you need a top-quality video image they are always the best choice. Normally using dedicated high-speed phone lines (such as ISDN), these systems require that all participants have compatible hardware. Many standards-based set-top videoconferencing boxes that sit atop your computer monitor, such as the Polycom ViewStation series, can now be had for less than $5,000.
Finally, desktop Internet protocol (IP) conferencing systems that rely on such high-speed networks as Ethernet and ATM are also available for less than $1,000 from companies including PictureTel, White Pine and Intel. These software, video card and video camera packages are based on standard such videoconferencing protocols as H.323 and H.320, plus T.120 or other dataconferencing standards. Dataconferencing features typically include a whiteboard, real-time chat, document sharing and file transfer. They are excellent tools for intracorporate conferencing, for instance, between engineers working on a project at remote sites or among far-flung salespeople.
As standards continue to converge, all types of conferencing become easier for people without computer science degrees to hook up. That's actually one of the biggest attractions of Web conferencing, in which no add-on software or hardware is necessary for most purposes. Set-top and IP-based conferencing systems are also getting simpler to set up and use. So you have fewer excuses anymore for not taking advantage of the power of real-time collaboration.