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-- by Amy Helen Johnson
Conferencing programs like Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0 represent the hope that one day it will be as easy to conduct meetings over the Internet as it is to gather in the conference room. In theory, remote conferencing is a simple matter of agreeing to a time, distributing everyone's Internet address and booting up the software that connects you. The reality is a bit more farcical. Imagine that one participant has a broken leg, one is blindfolded and the other is gagged. Drop all three in the middle of a major metropolitan airport and instruct them to find each other and get some work done.
To be fair, our problems with NetMeeting stemmed as much from the nature of the Internet as they did from NetMeeting itself. Its high-maintenance features-video and audio-depended heavily on our machine configuration and network environment. The quality of the microphone, speakers and camera made a difference, as did participants' network connection speeds.
And therein lies the rub with NetMeeting-it is just one piece of the conferencing puzzle. Although Microsoft did its best with speedy codecs, NetMeeting could not overcome the Internet's inherent limitations. If you use the program on an intranet or with a TI or T3 Internet connection, you'll be fine. But at modem speeds, you're better off picking up the phone. There is one feature that's worthwhile, even with a slow connection: Application sharing is a useful way of collaborating long distance.
Despite these problems, Microsoft greatly improved this version of NetMeeting. Audio latency is only 1 or 2 seconds at modem speeds, on par with international phone calls. The low-tech components-text-based chat and file sharing-worked beautifully, and the interface is an easily navigated tabbed window.
We did run into one glitch while learning to use the constituent pieces (audio, video, text-based chat, whiteboard, application sharing and file sharing). It took a while to realize that collaboration was a two-step process of sharing an application, then giving someone permission to use it.
Despite its improvements, NetMeeting still needs work. First, your machine crawls, especially if you launch the collaboration software, whiteboard and application sharing. Furthermore, Microsoft needs a better way to allocate cursor control for the collaborative utilities. Right now, the process works like buzzing in on "Jeopardy." Everyone frantically whacks his or her mouse, and the first one to click gets to play. When it's someone else's turn, your mouse stops working, which effectively kills your computer. In addition, participants are constantly reasserting control, so it's difficult for you to break in and take over. The end result is that you need to be on the phone coordinating your sharing.
Also, we'd like to see true multiparty audio- and videoconferencing. The best you can do now is rotate your audio and video output among the other participants. In addition, a comprehensive status screen, perhaps as a tab on the interface, would be helpful for diagnosing problems. The bottom of the window indicates whether you're on a call and which directory server you're logged on to. But plenty of other useful information hides under the menus, such as whether you're sending video images and what hardware the directory server detects.
During our tests, pinpointing the source of our problems was next to impossible, whether they were in NetMeeting, our peripherals, the Internet or the directory servers. The audio monitor indicated transmission, but the receiving tester didn't hear anything. Video worked when connected to one directory server, but not another. The problems were inconsistent-sometimes things worked when talking to one person, but not another.
Compared to NetMeeting, Netscape Conference is nearly a point-to-point match. Conference enables audio conversations, text chat, file swapping and a communal whiteboard. You find other people by logging on to an LDAP-based locator server, as you do with NetMeeting. There are a few obvious differences between the programs. Conference does not have a video component, it has a collaboration application tailored to shared Internet browsing, and it gives you more control over your technical preferences, such as which codec or audio sampling rates to use.
Currently, the only videoconferencing product that we recommend is Intel's proprietary hardware/software combination ProShare. When we see consistent, reliable performance regardless of the combination of software, hardware and network, we'll consider an open-standards Internet-based collaboration system like NetMeeting for inclusion on our WinList.