Volume 10 Number 34
October 17, 1994

Let's Get Together

Why using the phone for data collaboration is still problematic

In spite of all the bold announcements last year regarding the convergence of computers and telephony, not many such products shipped in 1994. Since we last wrote about this issue (see "Phone Tag," August 23, 1993), however, the concept of remote collaboration via shared documents and voice/data multiplexing modems has captured our attention. Unlike many of the niches within the computer and telephony soon-to-be-one universe, there are actually a variety of data-conferencing products that one can buy and try today. But don't rush out to your corner computer store quite yet -- these products aren't yet mature. Many are still fairly new and have a sparse set of features. Their potential is large, but still mostly unrealized.

The idea is to simulate the experience of people discussing a project or editing a document while looking at the same computer screen. Of course, talking and sharing text or graphics files is not as sexy as desktop videoconferencing, but videoconferencing still requires expensive equipment and wide-area bandwidth. Teleconferencing also usually lacks the pictures, charts, and text that are required to accomplish real work. You could always establish a modem connection to send along needed data, but that complicates matters. It makes vastly more sense to use the same connection to talk and share data.

Gadget happy

This technology holds any number of intriguing possibilities. What if the next generation of picocomputers came with this technology built-in? Hewlett-Packard appears to have taken a step in this direction with its newly announced OmniShare conferencer, in which a special notebook-sized tablet is used to share and annotate documents.

With a few refinements, and a far lower price than HP's $2,595, we think this might be an idea that would provide a new reason to buy yet another computing appliance. It might also stimulate a category of software that hasn't yet captured the popular imagination. Imagine being able to manage your enterprise via telephone numbers instead of messy TCP/IP addresses. How about being able to convene a conference of colleagues from within your application, as Lotus Development has begun to do with the version manager inside 1-2-3 that allows multiple users to store different assumptions in the same spreadsheet.

Working out the bugs

It will take time before these products become widely accepted. The software will have to work better with desktop operating systems and make better use of the limited bandwidth available even with the new high-speed modems. It will also take time to devise links to existing desktop applications that do more than just cut and paste data. Most important, telephony and local-area networking will have to become closer companions, as both Novell and Microsoft intend. All of these developments are still a few years away. In the meantime, we asked our friend David Strom, who has used many of these products in his capacity as a networking consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., to provide a road map based on his own experience in trying to collaborate long-distance.

As Mr. Strom sees it, some of the most important product activity this year has revolved around the VoiceView technology developed by Radish Communications Systems of Boulder, Colo. VoiceView, which allows the mixing of voice and data over the same phone connection, has now been licensed by most of the major modem vendors, including AT&T Paradyne, Hayes Microcomputer Products, Intel, Rockwell International (which makes chips used by many other vendors), and US Robotics, and is included in Microsoft's Windows Telephony interface as well.

The veggie version

With all this popularity, you would think one of the industry leaders would have a Radish-based modem out by now. We haven't seen one yet, but Radish has been producing its own phone sets and modems (the latter sell for less than $600) that use the protocol. An open issue is whether all the Radish-enabled modems will be able to communicate with the others. Our hope is that vendors won't repeat the debacle of the V.fast wars, where incomplete implementations and product pressures forced a crop of incompatible modems on the market. There is nothing a technology product planner hates more than YAMS: Yet Another Modem Standard.

A second player in the voice and data game is AT&T Paradyne. Not content to just license someone else's protocol, Ma Bell's modem vendor has come up with its own scheme, known as VoiceSpan. Unlike VoiceView, VoiceSpan allows the voice conversation to continue while data is being transferred. Modems that implement VoiceSpan split the line into two separate channels; in the Radish system, the modem interrupts the voice conversation when data needs to move. AT&T has been selling the Paradyne Dataport 2001, which implements VoiceSpan, for some time now.

Which is best probably depends on individual needs. Radish claims that its method provides the most throughput and the best voice quality for each application (data or voice) when it is needed; AT&T argues that it is annoying to have to interrupt the conversation until the data transfer is finished. A third entrant, modem maker, Multi-Tech Systems in Mounds View, Minn., also supports concurrent voice and data conversations with its own Supervisory Protocol (MSP). Multi-Tech sells a $900-plus modem, the PCS, that includes this protocol.

But it takes two

To make collaboration work, you need to ensure that you have a matched pair of modems so that both parties can communicate. Naturally, there is no interoperability among different brands; Radish modems can't talk to Multi-Tech's, and so forth. What happens if you want to collaborate with someone who isn't immediately available? Radish has a nice feature: The modem will answer the phone and store a file in its buffer until you return and tend to it. We think that you might as well use the built-in store-and-forward technology of your e-mail program rather than fool with this, but it is an idea worth expanding.

There are some other small differences among the modems. Radish has you initiate the connection by dialing the phone. The others allow you to do it from the keyboard of the computer. And Multi-Tech goes a step further by including a telephone handset and a speakerphone in its modem -- which is why the modem costs so much. All that is missing is a keypad -- but Multi-Tech does supply an answering machine and other software that can do the dialing from the attached computer.

None of these modems will get you much without the corresponding software that allows you to actually collaborate, and each modem maker has bundled in a different collaborative tool. AT&T includes FarSite conferencing software from DataBeam, based in Lexington, Ky. Radish has its own, called Peer. Multi-Tech uses Talk Show from Future Labs, Los Altos, Calif. Yet another entry is Face to Face from newcomer Crosswise, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., which doesn't do voice but seems to be the first cross-platform conferencing tool that runs on both Windows and Macintosh clients. Of course, none of these tools interoperate, so technology planners have to place their bets carefully.

All of the conferencing products do basically the same thing: You bring up a document, drawing, or presentation on your computer with the usual word processor or spreadsheet software, move it into the conferencing product, then connect to your colleague across the country and move the bits over the line so he can view, annotate, and otherwise collaborate with you in real time. You see each other's work, and all of the products have a variety of colored pens and other marking tools to use for comments and editing. Radish also includes a file-transfer option, so you don't have to be viewing a file to send it over the line.

Nuts and bolts

The Windows products offer at least minimal support for cutting and pasting; you can bring up a document or drawing in one window and move it via the Windows clipboard into the shared whiteboard area. It sounds more cumbersome than it is in practice. TalkShow goes a step further by working with OLE to move information directly in and out of its shared whiteboard space, provided that your Windows application happens to implement the right features of OLE to begin with. The Mac and Windows versions of Face to Face offer something different. They replace the printer driver, so to get a document across country you first have to print it to their "catcher," and then move it across the link. It seems the most cumbersome way to do it, but we always knew that cross-platform capability comes at the cost of convenience. Anyone in the dark ages of DOS can forget using any of these tools. Windows is the minimum operating system for collaboration.

So how well do these hardware and software combinations really work? To find out, our correspondent called a branch of Campbell Travel in Dallas, which was one of Radish's first customers. This is a natural fit for these technologies because for those who fly often it is annoying not to be able to view the same screen that the agent is using when it comes time to select the best flights.

Mr. Strom used this Radish-enabled travel agent to book several flights and reports that the Radish experience was less than ideal. Several calls were made because one side or the other always seemed to have something improperly configured, or the software on the agent's side wasn't working, or the agent wasn't trained fully. He concluded that this technology still has to mature and is back to booking flights with his local agent.

Next time, try the WAN

One might have better luck trying to establish a connection over the corporate WAN. This capability would make sense for enterprises that have already installed wide-area networks and want to use them for collaboration among dispersed work teams. Some products permit just that. Using a WAN link may mean faster transmission rates than are possible with dial-up modems, which is good for sending complex files. Face to Face and Talk Show both work over TCP/IP links. Face to Face also supports AppleTalk and Talk Show also works over NetBIOS and Novell's IPX protocols.

TalkShow is also unique in that it allows for more than two people to participate in a conference. We tried this and wound up talking to one colleague via a modem link, who in turn was connected via a LAN link to someone in his office. Face to Face cross-platform features will work on a LAN, but only if the Mac and the Windows machines are running TCP/IP protocols. If you try to connect two machines via NetWare, this won't work because the Mac is trying to speak AppleTalk, while the PC is trying to communicate with IPX.
We mention all these protocols and fine-print details to make a point: None of these products is anywhere near ready for the entire enterprise. Ideally, we'd like to have the cross-platform features of Face to Face, the ability to have multiple parties on the line and strong OLE links to our Windows applications as with TalkShow, the ubiquity of the Voice View protocols on a variety of modems, and the ability to have concurrent voice and data conversations over the line as with VoiceSpan or MSP protocols. At this point, any choice we might make would seem to involve unacceptable tradeoffs.

Becoming more alike

While it is nice that the market for collaborative tools is becoming broader, with a variety of products to choose from, we think most corporate users will have trouble evaluating the finer points of these products and will probably step gingerly into this marketplace. Until the products assimilate each others' best features, can work with each other, and make use of modems and protocols that are more generally available, the technology of voice/data collaboration is likely to remain a future opportunity rather than an immediate bonanza.

Technologic Partners Copyright ©1994

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