In a tight and uncertain economy, companies are using Web conferencing to avoid time-consuming and expensive travel and to enhance staff training and interactions with clients.
"Reducing the travel cost has been one of the biggest benefits," says Cheryl Jenkins, enterprise solutions manager at Lockwood Greene Engineers Inc., Spartanburg, S.C. "There are definitely tremendous savings."
Web conferencing can add many layers of data to basic conference calls. Arrangements can range from a single presenter, such as a CEO delivering a live video and audio talk to far-flung office locations, to several presenterseven hundredssitting at their computers simultaneously sharing, marking up and discussing drawings, documents and applications. Some firms use it for staff training.
|VIDEO CANFAB Black and Veatch uses many Web tools to link its offices worldwide. (Photo top courtesy of lockwood greene)|
"We have regular technical conferences, and one of our divisions can use it to communicate with 25 to 45 offices worldwide in one session," says Mike Lamb, director of e-business and Internet services at Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan. "In sharing best practices, all of the offices see live how an application is done within that design. We use it for pure collaboration, to reduce travel and to encourage standard practices across the enterprise."
But like most tools of information technology, there are confusing choices for users to sort out: an array of options, as well as costs, technical support and reliability issues.
A year ago, Lockwood Greene tasked Jenkins with setting a standard for the firm. She says increasing use of Web conferencing is part of Lockwood Greene's IT strategy for 2003. "Our whole focus is to stabilize the technology that we have purchased and roll it out through the company," she says.
Jenkins says the company's 17 domestic and 10 international offices were using a hodgepodge of tools, so she began to search for a single set of tools by investigating e-mail pitches from vendors and exploring their sites on the Internet.
Lockwood Greene is now using services from just a handful of market-dominant major vendors. The firm seeks security by using third-party resellers, aggregators and consultants who untangle the knots of confusion, disappointment and frustration that can be the hallmark of many first stabs at Web conferencing.
InterCall, Chicago, is Lockwood Greene's primary provider for audio and data conferencing. It offers a combination of mShow, a product for one-to-many presentations as well as the re-sold services of WebEx Communications Inc., San Jose, Calif., Raindance Communications Inc., Louisville, Colo., and Placeware Inc., Mountain View, Calif. Lockwood Greene buys WebEx services for significantly less from the reseller than it could through a direct purchase, Jenkins says, presumably due to advantages InterCall gets through volume purchasing.
Suppliers are also forming partnerships with organizations to provide Web conference services to members, often re-branded with organization logo. The American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, Va., for instance, will use Genesys, Montpellier, France, to host a series of infrastructure security workshops this spring on the Web with the The Infrastructure Security Partnership. ASCE is a founding member of the consortium.
Many consultants and aggregators also have helpful background materials on their Websites: www.conferzone.com; www.thinkofit.com and www.webseminarian.com are rich resources.
A low price is nice, Jenkins says, but service is critical and buying from one source gives a common help center for everything. When engineers meet clients and conduct conferences with remote colleagues for presentations, discussions and design changes, conference service reliability is of greatest importance. "To us that represents part of our professionalism," Jenkins says.
Options commonly available in most Web conferencing solutions include the ability to share PowerPoint slides, privately direct messages between participants, list attendees, conduct polls, share files and applications, archive sessions and piggyback voice and video over the connection. Some products can be installed on company servers but most are hosted through the providers' servers. A few, such as Net Meeting from Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., and EZ 3.0 from Sigma Design, Alexandria, La., connect participants directly, without using Web servers, in a link called "peer-to-peer."
The real difficulty in picking a conferencing product is not so much one of finding features as of finding the level of reliability and service needed at an affordable price.
"There is a wide variety of vendors and it can be difficult to figure out their relative strengths and weakness," says David Woolley, president of Thinkofit Inc., Minneapolis, a Web conferencing consultant. He says that companies should assess their needs before they begin shopping for a service.
"There are quite a few services on the low end for light use for companies that want to get their feet wet. Those that will scale up tend to be more expensive. There is a big difference between a presentation to a dozen people versus a presentation to a thousand," Woolley says.
Pricing plans are another differentiator. Some are sold on a per-seat basis and others are sold per minute of use. Costs vary widely, but typical figures for per-seat plans work out to a monthly $100 to $200 per seat, with a minimum of five seats for three months. Set-up can cost from nothing to $1,000 and more.
Will Anderson, president of Obidicut LLC, Portland, Ore., is another consultant and reseller. He recommends companies try a per-minute basis at first and then look at a month or two of data to find the break-even point, evaluate pricing models and decide if the service they've tried suits their needs.
"There is a wide range of products out there. Some are good for some applications and some are good for others and some aren't too good at all," Anderson says. "Reliability issues tend to lead you to the leaders."
Web Conferencing Takes Trade Show to the Next Level
Taking the idea of internet conferencing to the max, a technology consultant in New York City is putting together an ambitious trade show in cyberspace.
IDPartners LLC, Closter, N.J., is organizing Terror and Technology Online, an expo on anti-terrorism, security and defense technologies, to be presented May 12-15.
Like most trade shows, there will be keynote speakers and live exchanges during sessions; there just will not be a meeting hall. Scheduled speakers include former Central Intelligence Agency Director R. James Woolsey and Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel. They will participate from their offices, interacting with attendees at their own computers, wherever they are.
The trade show floor will be divided into Information Technology, Utilities and Infrastructure, Transportation and Public Safety. Vendors are offered an array of options to make their booths stand out on the user interface, which will let visitors click through to investigate products and interact with vendors.
The project is the brainchild of Ido Ganor, ID Partners managing partner. It will use technology from Unisfair, Ramat-gan, Israel. The technology can link multiple interactive modules, Webcasting and advanced content management into a single production that enables production of multiday, multilocation, multitopic and multi-occurrence interactive events.
Originally planned for February, the conference was rescheduled at the last minute because heightened terrorism concerns were distracting too many participants. "That's another major advantage of an online conference," Ganor says. "You can adjust."
REAL-TIME WEB CONFERENCING VENDORS
|SERVICE PROVIDER||PRODUCT||FREE |
|WEB ADDRESS (WWW)|
|AT&T, Bridgewater, N.J.||AT&T Web Meeting|| |
|Atinav Inc., Somerset, N.J.||aveComm|| |
|C.A.T. Inc., St. Paul, Minn.||meetingroom7|| |
|Centra Software, Lexington, Mass.||CentraOne 6.0|| |
|Citizens Conferencing, |
|Web View|| |
|ENC Technology Corp., |
|Encounter Collaborative Corp., |
|econnect audio/agenda|| |
|FocusFocus Inc., |
Woodland Hills, Calif.
|FocusFocus Meeting|| |
|Genesys Conferencing, Montpellier, France||Genesys Meeting Center|| |
|Global Crossing Conferencing, Westminister, Colo.||eMeeting|| |
|HelpMeeting LLC, |
|HorizonLive.com Inc., |
New York, N.Y.
|iMeet Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa.||iMeet Corporate Meeting Center|| |
|InComm Solutions Inc., |
Glen Rock, N.J.
|InComm Web Solutions|| |
|Interactive Commerce Consultants, Cary, N.C.||Interactive Commerce|| |
|Interwise, Santa Clara, Calif.||Enterprise Communication Platform|| |
|LINK Conference Service, Bellevue, Wash.||WebLINK|| |
|Linktivity/SpartaCom Technologies Inc., Tucson, Ariz.||WebDemo|| |
|Loudeye Corp., Seattle, Wash.||Loudeye Enterprise Communication Svcs.|| |
|Ncast Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif.||Telepresenter M2|| |
|Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.||NetMeeting|| |
|Pixion Inc., Pleasanton, Calif.||Picture Talk|| |
|PlaceWare Inc., Mountain View, Calif.||PlaceWare Online Edition|| |
|PlaceWare Inc., Mountain View, Calif.||PlaceWare Premier Edition|| |
|PresentAnytime Inc., Torrance, Calif.||PresentAnytime Web|| |
|Raindance Communications Inc., Louisville, Colo.||Web Conferencing Pro|| |
|Reality Fusion Inc., Santa Cruz, Calif.||TeamView|| |
|Sigma Design, Alexandria, La.||EZ 3.0|| |
|SpeakSpace Inc., Westlake, Ohio||SpeakSpace|| |
|Spectel, Andover, Mass.||Meetings Manager|| |
|VirtualDesign.Net Inc., Portland, Ore.||Virtual-WorkSpaces|| |
|VitalStream Inc., Irvine, Calif.||VitalPresenter|| |
|Wave Three Software, San Diego, Calif.||Session Collaboration Software|| |
|Web4Engineers, Yorba Linda, Calif.||eReview|| |
|Web Conferencing Central, Newport Beach, Calif.||Web Confereencing Central|| |
|WebConference.com, Glendale, Calif.||Web Conference Basic/Pro|| |
|WebEx Communications Inc., San Jose, Calif.||WebEx Meeting Center|| |
|Yahoo! Broadcast Solutions, Sunnyvale, Calif.||Webcast Studio Professional|| |
|CONSULTANTS, AGGREGATORS, RESELLERS||TELEPHONE||WEB ADDRESS (WWW)|
|Communique Conferencing Inc., Reston, Va.||866-522-6338||webconferencingdepot.com|
|InterCall, Chicago, Ill.||800-374-2441||intercall.com|
|ConferZone.com, Denver, Colo.||303-316-0175||conferzone.com|
|TernionConferencing, Naperville, Ill.||877-837-6466||ternionconferencing.com|
|Thinkofit Inc., Minneapolis, Minn.||612-824-2001||thinkofit.com|
|Obidicut LLC, Portland, Ore.||503-452-7621||webseminiarian.com|
Principal source for the selected data above is the CoferGuide, an online Web Conferencing vendor database maintained by ConferZone.com, a Web Conferencing consultant in Denver, Colo. Key: X indicates availability, NA indicates information not available.