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Web conferencing

Not all Web conferencing products live up to their hype, and not all the ones that do are necessarily right for you. Here’s a guide to finding just the right fit.

The term “Web conferencing” is half of a set of new words whose importance is gaining increasing momentum; the other is “collaboration.” People are looking for more effective and reliable ways to work together, over distances large and small, and Web conferencing seems to fit the bill.

But there is more to Web conferencing than meets the eye. There’s not only more than one vendor skinning this cat, they’re finding a ton of ways to skin it. It’s safe to say that all of the vendors currently making Web conferencing products have their own philosophies about what works best, but the differences among them go beyond that.

The differences also extend to where the philosophies of each vendor led them to develop the individual strengths of their products. In short, not all Web conferencing products do the same things, and they don’t all do everything well. Understanding the varying strengths of Web conferencing products is the most important factor in your decision to bring the technology in-house. You’ll have to map those strengths to your needs in order to pick the product, or products, that best meet them.

It was obvious to us that we needed to evaluate the various technologies playing in the Web conferencing space based on their primary functions. That is, what were the vendors touting most about their products, and how well were they delivering on what they were hyping? Approaching the task in this way, we segmented the Web conferencing market into five parts:

1. General Business Communications: These are products that offer multifaceted, but integrated, capabilities to host meetings, do broadcasts, hold training sessions and perform customer service and support tasks. They are also differentiated by the fact that they have, for the most part, built their own network infrastructure to fully run and support their conferencing products. Examples of these types of products are WebEx and Interwise.

2. Project Management Focused: These are products that let people see how one thing leads to another, and who is doing what, on a project large or small. For example, let’s say a company is completely revamping the way they do the tracking of their service contracts. Right now, they are tracking service contracts by date, but it’s becoming unwieldy so they’ve decided to break down everything they support for a given client by the product instead. And because clients change their equipment all the time, the new system must be able to set up each client with a list of everything they are running which requires the coordination of many databases in many different locations.

A Web conferencing product that is specifically designed to handle this kind of dynamic project is much different from one which is intended to engender status meetings between ten people once a week, and so there are project management-focused Web conferencing technologies available. Documentum, formerly eRoom, is an example of a project management-targeted Web conferencing product.

3. Speaking of meetings, there are products that are the direct result of vendors having spent all of their R&D money on improving the reliability and stability of technologies that support the sort of highly interactive exchanges of ideas and data that typically occur among smaller groups of people who are used to working together, even remotely. And these meeting centric products are also focused on economy of scale, which means they want to deliver in a cost efficient manner the precise functions needed by smaller to medium size organizations.

It is this focus that differentiates them from the general business communications providers. LiveMeeting from Microsoft, (formerly Meeting Place from PlaceWare), and the family of products from Latitude and Spartacom are examples of these kinds of collaborative software.

4. We firmly believe that the next great frontier for Web conferencing is training and employee education programs. We are not of the opinion that all things can be taught well, or even adequately, over the Internet, but there’s a lot that can. When Web conferencing first started to take hold, between around 1998 and 2001, organizations sought to fit the square pegs of some of their training into the round holes of Web conferencing software that, till then, was really only designed to support small group meetings.

Since 2001, a big push has been put on to develop user interfaces within Web conferencing products that provide the kinds of functions that people specifically expect from training scenarios. Things like breakout sessions, or confidential Q&A with the instructor, or even on-the-spot testing and performance assessment.

And there are also important differences in how content is developed that go beyond the technological concerns of how it’s delivered. In this space, there are vendors like Centra who have tools to help you design your own content; others like MindShare that produce pre-packaged content that you can buy, edit and distribute asynchronously; and still others who specialize in developing fully facilitated, live programs. WorkWorlds is an excellent example of this option.

5. Last, there are vendors operating in the word of Web conferencing whose focus and functions are really about delivering voice interaction as part of the collaboration. There are fully functional third party audio conferencing providers ranging from AT&T to Voyant, but there is also what’s coming down the pike: voice over internet protocol or VoIP. VoIP refers to using the same Internet connection for voice as for data and video or what have you, but the stability of most VoIP options are, these days, not great. However, due to issues of bandwidth and cost, VoIP is definitely going to be the way of the voice communication future and we can expect every Web conferencing vendor to have a very strong VoIP strategy soon.

An appreciation of the different types of Web conferencing products that exist and their targeted functions is your first step in evaluating what use Web conferencing can be to you and your business. We believe that this leading-edge technology can serve many purposes for many organizations, and we invite you to check out The Web Conferencing Book to learn more about it all.

Sue Spielman and Liz Winfeld are partners at Switchback Software, LLC (www.switchbacksoftware.com). They are also co-authors of The Web Conferencing Book (AMACOM, Sept. 2003) and they can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

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