Meetings 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).

WebEx
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
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 meeting.

Centra
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.

Summary
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


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WebEx
Placeware
Centra.com
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