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Virtual Meetings
New software and hardware are bringing businesses together with Internet-based conferencing.

-- by Lenny Bailes

Time was, a group of people would gather in the same room around a table to have a meeting. Issues were discussed and decisions made face-to-face and eye-to-eye. But those days are fading fast.

Far-flung branch offices, work-at-home staff and businesses that surpass geographic borders have helped reshape the logistics of commerce. Sure, you can fly almost anywhere at a moment's notice, but the cost and time of jetting from meeting to meeting quickly take their toll. And other means of communication-telephone, fax, modem, e-mail-lack the immediacy of an in-person meeting.

Web-based videoconferencing just might change the face of remote meetings. Current software packages and hardware standards are combining to make Internet-based conferencing a viable business tool. New interactive, Internet-based communications technologies are giving some businesses reason to reconsider their traditional, long-distance conferencing procedures.

The Internet has already established itself as an inexpensive, universal vehicle for long-distance communication through point-to-point text and data transmission. And, during the past two years, clever programmers have developed software that transforms the Internet into a cheap, long-distance telephone system. In addition, software that allows cellular-quality, full-duplex voice conferencing over the Internet has gradually replaced the original scratchy voice transmissions.

While traditional text-based Internet chat is a limited means of communication that holds little appeal for businesses, the emerging breed of conferencing software merits serious consideration.

Board Meeting

Whiteboard conferencing applications permit geographically diverse participants to exchange files and share ideas through a common desktop metaphor. The good news is that this kind of uniformly interfaced conferencing doesn't require much additional hardware or Internet bandwidth.

Packages like Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0 and The ForeFront Group's RoundTable 2.0 run comfortably through a standard 28.8Kbps PPP connection. (See sidebar "Hands-On Net Conferencing" for our evaluations.) The shared conferencing interface usually contains a text-based chat window or audio link, plus a drawing screen (or whiteboard). A whiteboard displays common text and graphics on each participant's desktop. It typically contains a palette of drawing tools, a text tool and a clipboard to capture text or images from each participant's local machine. Group members can take turns drawing or modifying simple diagrams, sharing images or entering text commentary. Additionally, the conferencing interface supports binary file transfers among group members and, in some cases, allows application sharing.

NetMeeting and Fiber & Wireless' Mediafone let one participant publish a copy of an executable file that other participants can also use. The shared application appears in a separate window on each user's desktop. Group members can take turns temporarily assuming control of the shared program.

When added to text-based chat, whiteboard conferencing, file-transfer capability and application sharing greatly enhance the productivity possibilities in a remote-group conference. It's even easy and relatively inexpensive to upgrade to full videoconferencing to more closely recreate the atmosphere of an in-person meeting.

Seeing Is Believing

Although Internet videoconferencing is still in early development, it holds great potential. Small, inexpensive PC-compatible cameras and software such as White Pines' CU-SeeMe ($69, 603-886-9050) are paving the way for more sophisticated conferencing applications.

Video kits have appeared at both the high and low ends of the conferencing-tool spectrum. These packages typically comprise cameras, video-capture cards, modems and software. With a videoconferencing setup, you can send synchronous live video and audio through ISDN lines, modem-to-modem telephone connections and the Internet.

Audio- and videoconferencing are combined with text chat, file sharing and whiteboard support in conferencing packages from Specom SuiteVisions ($300 or $59 for software only, 408-982-1880), SEMS Eye2Eye ($649, 310-275-7788) and Fiber & Wireless Mediafone ($100, 310-787-7097). Each product is also available as part of a video connection kit that includes a camera and a video-capture board. These products each support three conference connections: TCP/IP, ISDN and modem-to-modem. Internet phone and videoconferencing applications (essentially "Internet phone with pictures") are an improvement over text-based chat rooms, but they also have their limitations.

While inexpensive sound cards and modems are now ubiquitous, many are limited to half-duplex audio. As a result, only one end of a connection can speak at a time, forcing you to pause after speaking and wait to receive a response. That might sound like a polite way to conduct a conference, but the talk-wait-talk process can strip the spontaneity out of a conversation and put the brakes on brainstorming. Although most newer Sound Blaster sound cards can run in full-duplex mode, this feature is not supported by the original Windows 95 drivers. Fortunately, you can convert a Sound Blaster 16 to support full-duplex communications by downloading a driver from Creative Labs' Web site (http://www.creaf.com)

And there are other problems facing videoconferencing. Portable cameras and video-capture cards are less abundant than modems and sound cards, and videoconferencing software is just beginning to develop universal standards. (See sidebar "Cyber Standards.") Right now, many conferencing packages use proprietary protocols that prohibit connection to another manufacturer's product.

Bandwidth issues must also be settled. Videoconferencing over the Internet is currently limited by asynchronous modems and low-speed connections. Few companies can afford to set up ISDN or T1 lines specifically for videoconferencing. Within the next year, however, you can expect to see hardware and software technologies that address this issue, including V.80 synchronous modems and new communication protocols that will enhance plain old telephone, ISDN and Internet conferencing.

Face-to-Face on the Net

To participate in an Internet-based conference, you must either log on to an established Internet conferencing server or contact a participant directly through an assigned IP address. Both Microsoft NetMeeting and The Forefront Group's RoundTable use the server-based approach.

RoundTable gives you a choice between using ForeFront's server on the Internet, or running your own. The shipping package includes the server and client interfaces. Microsoft had beta code for the NetMeeting server available from the company Web site at press time. You can download the client interfaces for both NetMeeting and RoundTable from the companies' Web sites.

Once you're connected to the appropriate Internet conference server, the client interface displays a list of potential meeting participants. You can start your own meeting and invite others, or ask to join an existing meeting. After you've established a meeting connection, a text-based chat window and a shared whiteboard become available.

NetMeeting also offers the option of a voice-to-voice connection, but limits support to two participants. Additional users joining a NetMeeting group are limited to text and whiteboard-based participation. Although RoundTable does not include voice-to-voice conferencing, it does have a utility that can translate typed messages into spoken words.

For Internet conferencing, participants are contacted through active IP addresses rather than through a dedicated server specifically set up to handle conferencing chores. Mediafone offers the unique capacity to support simultaneous audio and videoconferencing for groups larger than two participants, and also offers application sharing.

Conferences Yet to Come

Web-based whiteboard and videoconferencing is still in its infancy, yet it offers a viable alternative to in-person meetings. Some of the current obstacles are bound to fall by the wayside in the near term as the technology continues to develop and new alliances are forged. For example, Microsoft recently announced a cross-licensing agreement with Farallon Communications to deliver interoperable Internet communications. Farallon, which owns a patent on cross-platform screen-sharing technology, manufactures the popular Timbuktu Pro collaboration software. Timbuktu also permits application sharing between Macintosh and Windows systems.

Videoconferencing-via modem, ISDN and high-speed T1 connections-has already proved its value for purposes as diverse as medical consultations, engineering design sessions, training and show-and-tell product consultations. But standards that enable lower-cost, high-bandwidth connections are evolving, and Internet conferencing packages should become commonplace among business users. Maybe it's time to find a new use for that conference room.

Lenny Bailes is a San Francisco-based instructor and consultant, and the author of The Byte Guide to Optimizing Windows 95 (Osborne-McGraw Hill, 1995). Contact him care of the editor at the addresses on page 24.

Sidebar -- Where's The Safety Net?

With conferencing software, if you have the technical know-how you can join the party-even if you weren't invited. For effective business use, conferencing software must keep intruders out. Additionally, you should be able to set up internal controls for conference participants within the group. For example, you may need the authority to invite new people to meetings or control the video-window and whiteboard contents. In a large meeting, you may want to grant some participants read-only rights, while allowing others to transmit files.

Most current conferencing applications lack these internal controls. Microsoft's NetMeeting 2.0 beta lets you hang up on a meeting or reject an initial call, but there are no provisions for access control once someone is admitted to the group. ForeFront's newly revised RoundTable 2.0 includes some internal participation controls. When you create a conference using RoundTable, you can eject participants, password-protect meetings and create multiple conference rooms.

Specom Suite Visions, SEMS Eye2Eye and Fiber & Wireless Mediafone do not establish access controls for participants. None of the conferencing packages I surveyed offers encryption. Adding more administrative controls and security provisions may be warranted if Internet conferencing is to attract sales and marketing professionals, for example. For the moment, transmit sensitive data via safer means-at least until security becomes a standard conferencing-application feature.

Sidebar -- Cyber Standards

Videoconferencing via the Internet with a minimum setup-a 28.8Kbps modem, a modest digital camera and a sound card-is an iffy proposition. You can overcome some of the speed and quality constraints with a configuration that includes an analog camera and an NTSC capture board that can transmit TV-quality images at 30 frames per second and an ISDN or T1 connection, but you may still encounter compatibility problems.

Both issues-speed and compatibility among various conferencing products-are being addressed by industry groups that are currently developing standards.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the body that defines modem standards, met last year to outline a common video-transmission specification. This specification, called H.323, will permit diverse conferencing applications from many manufacturers to talk to one another through high-speed (100BaseT) networks and Internet links.

If your budget can't bear the expense of a high-speed connection, you should be able to take advantage of improvements in modem-to-modem conference quality over standard telephone lines with the arrival of the V.80 synchronous standard for 33.6Kbps modems. Current V.34 modems are not equipped to transmit a video stream. Instead of the 10fps to 15fps that would constitute minimally acceptable video quality, you're more likely to average 3fps to 5fps.

V.80's purpose is to upgrade the video-transmission quality over ordinary telephone lines, using these enhancements:

Support for synchronous video streams over a 33.6Kbps connection H.324, a new ITU video transmission protocol, will permit compliant conferencing apps to transmit video data over a standard telephone line. The V.80 modem protocol can convert a synchronous H.324 data stream into a signal transportable through an asynchronous modem connection.

Transmission-rate management This allows on-the-fly adjustments over poor telephone lines to help prevent lost data.

Ability to alert H.324-compliant software of rate adjustments This allows the connection to retain packets lost in buffer overflows or line noise.

Availability of V.80 modems Diamond Multimedia Systems (from $249, 800-727-8772) has upgraded all of its Supra 33.6Kbps modems to support V.80. Other modem manufacturers will be following suit early this year.

Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.

(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 234.)