with widely distributed participants are a hassle. In the past you had two choices:
fly everyone to one location, or endure painful audio conferences. With the
introduction of programs such as Microsoft NetMeeting, it has become possible
to hold data conferences where you share documents and applications with remote
participants. However, setting up these data conferences has always been difficult
due to the problem of securely connecting people who are behind corporate firewalls.
These conferences also require that everyone have the same software.
Recently, a number of companies have introduced virtual meeting spaces. These
are Web sites where you can hold online meetings. Anyone with a browser can
connect to these Virtual Meeting Spaces and easily set up password-protected
meetings. Inside these meetings you can share applications, show documents,
and sometimes even include audio.
I spent a few days touring some of the more popular sites. This article is
by no means a comprehensive survey of all that is available. It is also not
a review. Instead, it is intended to provide people with a bit of information
on Virtual Meeting Spaces and what they offer.
For the most part, these systems are very similar. Each has a whiteboard where
you can write notes. Each also supports the ability to load and show PowerPoint
presentations. And each has some ability to share live applications with other
users (though functionality varied widely from one site to the next).
My tour started off at WebEx. WebEx is fairly well known in the business,
and their Web site has a superb flash demo that shows off their product nicely.
The whiteboard and PowerPoint presentation features were easy to use. The application
sharing feature was extremely powerful though somewhat confusing initially.
You could share any of the applications running on your system. Each shared
application got a small button on the WebEx title bar that provided additional
controls. Particularly useful was the ability to annotate over shared applications
with a set of pen tools.
Another impressive feature was the integrated support for audio conferences.
Although I did not try this feature, the promotional material said that it would
be possible to create a meeting and book a voice conference at the same time.
Performance was excellent throughout.
Placeware is another well-known system. It also had a flash demo, but it
wasn’t my favorite. When I tried out the product, however, I was extremely impressed.
The system had an excellent user interface that struck a perfect balance between
functionality and complexity.
Placeware has a great set of presenter tools that allow you to easily control
what participants can see and do in a meeting. Although it seems to be aiming
mainly for a presentation market, it would be a good choice for any type of
Centra’s specialty is definitely audio support. You can do audio directly
from your PC using a microphone connected to your sound card. Centra uses a
push-to-talk metaphor to control who is speaking. You hold the control key to
get the microphone so that you can speak. Although the audio quality was reasonable,
streaming audio is still a very immature technology and results can vary tremendously.
Unfortunately, performance on the site was sluggish and the interface was overcrowded
compared to other sites. However, if integrated audio is important to you and
you’re willing to put up with some minor delays and usability issues, Centra
would be well worth visiting.
These are just a few of the many companies entering this space. Judging
from the level of functionality I saw in all of these sites, Virtual Meetings
are becoming a great alternative to travel. You can stay home and save a bunch
of money by saying "Meet you on the Web."
1. Fast Company Magazine, January/February 2000 issue