[ Go to October 1997 Table of Contents ]|
-- by Amy Helen Johnson
Working with bleeding-edge products involves frustration, failure and fatalism, and "promising products" often become problematic ones. Netscape Conference 4.0, an Internet collaboration product, is one such example. A better choice in this arena is Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0.
Both Conference and NetMeeting are second-generation attempts to mass-merchandise audio, text chat, application sharing and whiteboard applications to the general consumer and business user. These products seek to handle real-time communications as easily as they deliver Web-page data downloads. The idea is sound, but the necessary infrastructure-the Internet-is shaky.
The Internet is not ready for a product like Conference. At average dial-up speeds of 28.8Kb per second, you'll experience jerky updates to the whiteboard that slow to a crawl when you place large files, like pictures, in the work area. Speech arrives in bursts like astronauts talking to NASA ground control. It's also difficult to find the people with whom you want to collaborate because Netscape and Microsoft have conflicting LDAP directory implementations, and third-party directory services that try to merge the two-such as Four11-are awkward.
Of course, NetMeeting suffers from some of these same infrastructure limitations. Working in a corporate setting alleviates some of these problems. A high-speed LAN will reduce latency, and control of the directory server makes it easier to find collaborators.
But Conference's problems go beyond a reliance on clogged pipelines and primitive phone books. It's just not easy and foolproof enough for the millions of average computer users who download the latest version of Netscape's browser suite or find it installed on their corporate desktop.
The ease-of-use issue boils down to poor interface design. For example, it's confusingly complex to set up the audio. You must manipulate two sets of controls in two different places: A sensitivity control determines how much noise the mike must hear before it figures out you're speaking, while a volume control determines the level of the microphone input. In addition, the "Phone is ringing" dialog appears only within the Conference window, so if you're working in another application and have muted the sound on your machine, you'll never know when someone is calling.
In contrast, when a NetMeeting call comes through, its program window becomes active. In Conference, we had a hard time detecting when a call was in progress; we had to infer this from a change in the taskbar icon and the appearance of the caller's picture. NetMeeting has a tab that shows you the participants in your current meeting and notes your current activity in a status bar.
Conference's flaky behavior further weakened our ability to determine that a call was in progress. Calls appeared to connect but we never saw the other person's picture, endless ringing continued even after a call was accepted, and "illegal operation" messages shut down the application. Dialing via an e-mail address might not work, but typing in the IP address would. The variety and persistence of these problems suggests that the product needs more testing.
But the main reason we prefer NetMeeting over Conference is that NetMeeting has more features. For instance, it lets you collaborate on any Windows application, while Conference only supplies collaborative Web browsing.
NetMeeting also supports live video feeds, a feature Conference lacks because Netscape found that its corporate customers rank it as a low priority. This is logical, because in most business situations the still image that Conference transmits is sufficient. But these products are pushing a new work paradigm of online collaboration, and a lack of support for live video removes the possibility that business users will discover some new, as-yet-unimagined use for it. After all, how many companies would have said three years ago that browsers and Web sites were vital business tools?
We would also think more kindly of Conference if Netscape made a greater commitment toward supporting its users. Unlike Microsoft, which runs its own directory servers, Netscape leaves that job up to Four11, whose directory takes 10 minutes to update. As a result, you're invisible when you first log in, and multiple logins will make the directory associate the wrong IP address with you.
It's a shame that a company with a history of groundbreaking technology fails to deliver a premier videoconferencing product with the most innovative features, the greatest stability and the clearest design. Netscape is capable of better than this.
Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 150.