RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Web conferences have come a long way, baby

October 27, 2008

I can change my mind. It's painful, like yanking off my right arm for a slightly upgraded replacement. But it happens.

For a long time, I resisted holding Web conferences. As the name implies, Web conferences are held over the Web, rather than in person. For years, most of the ones I'd been in were videoconferences with grainy, slowly updated images of talking heads where it was difficult even to know who was speaking.

I didn't like the document-centric online conferences much either, where the focus is on a shared presentation or text on screen, with some chat and other capability thrown in. They felt sterile after years of meeting people face-to-face across a table. When I do presentations, I like to see the faces of my audience so I know what to emphasize and where to slow down. Regular readers will know I'm not even enamored of PowerPoint slides.

I've since come to see that meetings are in two distinct types. The first is the pitch format, where I'm trying to make a case for something. There, I need to see faces and body language. They can be delicate events, requiring fine-tuning on the fly. But the majority of my meetings today are of the second type, which is almost purely informational. I'm moving knowledge from one brain into another. Here I've found, somewhat to my surprise, that Web conferences can be better than on-site, face-to-face gettogethers, and clients don't mind our not actually being in the room.

This doesn't mean I'm a wholehearted convert to online education. I'm not. Some courses and students work out online, others don't. But for small shots of information, a Web conference is often best. There are no travel expenses or delays, preparation is simple, you can include as many people in as many places as you like, anywhere there's an Internet connection. Theoretically, astronauts could join in from orbit.

You can usually record online conferences, so people who couldn't make the meeting can review it later. Web conferences can be used to deliver largely oneway recorded presentations called "webinars," a play on the word "seminar." As a final bonus, you can do the meeting in your jammies, if you want. Nobody will know. Considering that a noon meeting in Denver is happening at 2 a.m. in Hong Kong, the last benefit may be the biggest one.

A typical conference looks like this: The person who is going to host sets up the meeting through an online conference company, such as WebEx (www.webex.com) or GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). The conference company exacts a fee. Other participants, using their Web browsers, log in, too. The screen usually shows a document of some kind or a presentation. Video is often available, but most people don't seem to bother.

There's a small chat window for communicating between participants. Another window keeps track of who's logged in. A phone bridge provides voice, often through a WATS number. The host starts out as the presenter and has control over what everybody else sees, but he can pass that off to other participants if he wants. Some Web meeting companies offer a markerboardstyle drawing application for brainstorming. Some conference software requires you to upload whatever you want to share, while others let you share whatever is on your own local computer.

Most of the problems I've had with online conferencing appear to have been conquered. Faster network speeds are now the rule rather than the exception, so even video isn't as jerky. The meeting software is much more reliable nowadays, and browsers can handle more complex interfaces using technologies such as Java and JavaScript that don't choke the poor things anymore.

Of course, like any technology, there are some things to balance out. One is security. You may have lots of people logging in at airports, hotel lobbies or other places where information shouldn't be seen by strangers. Another is training personnel to make good use of the software.

There's a technique to holding good Web conferences with clients. You can't see faces or bodies, so a good presenter has to anticipate problems and questions. For me, though, the biggest challenge is familiarity. If you use a conference company frequently, you'll get used to that interface and feel comfortable "driving." But clients, executives and other infrequent users aren't accustomed to the interface, so if they have something they want to show from their end-if they need to "drive"-it can get messy.

There are a lot of Web conferencing companies-21 by one count at webconferencing-test.com. That site also has ratings for the various companies. Prices are pretty low, too. Adobe Connect (www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect) is $39 per month for unlimited meetings of up to 15 participants, or $395 for a year. Most conferencing companies seem to fall fairly close to that rate.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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