Not Ready for Prime Time: Six reasons why Web-based conferencing is only half-baked

By David Strom

(appeared in Small Business Computing and Communications, 3/99)

At first the prospect of using the Internet for group collaboration sounds appealing. Instead of rounding up your team and sticking them on an airplane, you could gather them quickly and let them pool their collective wisdom using inexpensive, run-of-the-mill PCs and Web browsers. You could share pre-recorded speech and video presentations, conduct a training seminar for your far-flung sales staff, or even conduct a tour of a Web site.

Unfortunately, Web-based conferencing technology is currently more hype than reality-just a small step up from vaporware. There is a confusing array of products in the market, their implementation remains complex, and matching your needs to a particular tool takes careful research. If you investigate how to actually use Web-based collaboration tools, you start to uncover various complicating factors. How much productivity you get out of them depends a great deal on what particular kind of collaboration you require, whether or not your event will need live audio and video broadcasts, what kinds of operating environment and computing gear you already have, and how much Internet bandwidth will be needed to support the entire process. These problems aren't obvious when you begin your exploration, and tracking down the details may turn out to be more than you bargained for.

Here are the six reasons why we don't recommend Web-based collaboration-yet.

  1. No single package gives you all the options you need. Collaboration can be one-to-one, one-to-many (like a lecture class where the instructor speaks and students listen), or many-to-many (like a graduate-level seminar, where all participants share equally an interactive discussion). No one Web-based collaboration product lets you handle all three types of collaboration, so you need to either buy more than one, or-in a worst-case scenario-you could inadvertently choose the wrong package.

    Your collaboration may be text-based (employees type in their responses sequentially), or you may hold a real-time audio conference (such as a telephone conference call), where the audio is piped directly through your computer. You may even want to exchange visual information, such as a live-video feed.

    Applications best suited for one-to-one meetings include remote-control or screen-sharing programs, such as pcAnywhere from Symantec or Laplink from Traveling Software. One-to-many applications include some of the broadcasting technologies covered in this article, such as Sessio's iSession and Contigo's Internet Conferencing System. And many-to-many applications include such distance-learning tools as Broadband Associates' Mshow and Interactive Broadcast Suite from Netpodium.

  2. There are too many pieces. Some collaborative events are live; some, like speeches, use pre-recorded information. Part of any decision about going with live or pre-recorded information is whether you have access to audio and video production equipment, and how you'll connect this gear to your computers. This may be a deal-breaker, since few small businesses can afford the technical resources to set all of this up properly.

    On top of that, Web-based conferencing products provide different levels of support: Yesler Alive supports pre-recorded events, while Centra Software's Symposium combines live audio with a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation or a series of Web pages that is displayed on every screen. Other products, such as Eloquent's Presenter, don't support live broadcasts at all.

  3. There is no standard computing environment. Each product has different requirements for the leader and participant portions, and you won't understand these requirements just by looking at the various vendors' sites. Some work only with Windows 95, 98, and NT software; others embrace earlier versions of Windows, as well as other operating systems.

    Browser and plug-in compatibility is another problem area. WBT Systems' TopClass works just fine inside recent (version 4.0 or higher) Microsoft and Netscape browsers. But programs like iSession require you to download various audio and other plug-ins and install them on every conference machine. Still others, such as Lotus' Sametime, can support users of either a browser or the product's own special software.

    You'll need to make sure that every computer has the proper plug-ins and fulfills all the requirements for the software you choose. Some manufacturers make that easy: Placeware's Conference Center comes with its own plug-ins, so participants can listen to the audio broadcasts; Internet Conferencing System uses Java; Yesler Alive and Interactive Broadcast Suite are compatible with streaming media players from Real Networks and Microsoft.

    But creating the appropriate environment for these products means worrying about many different elements-something that could easily overwhelm most users.

  4. Your Internet connection probably isn't good enough. If you're using dial-up modems to get Internet access, you'll find it almost impossible to participate in many of these conferencing activities. Most of the products are designed for at least 56Kbps connections, and work best with ISDN or T-1 links.

  5. Some of your applications may not be supported. Most products support sequencing of Microsoft PowerPoint slides, through which the leader controls the particular slide that the participants view. Other products, such as Symposium, take this a step further and enable any application to be shared among conference participants. This is handy if you want to show a spreadsheet calculation or a series of supporting documents.

    Overall, it is best to keep the number of applications (other than a browser) to one or at most two; otherwise, your audience can be overwhelmed as you switch among several different windows.

  6. It costs too much. Prices are all over the map, starting at $250 and going as high as $25,000. Some vendors, such as NetPodium, charge a flat $3,000 for each conference. Sessio offers two pricing plans: per-participant and monthly. With Mshow, you'll have to pay extra for the telephone conference call, since Mshow doesn't include audio capabilities. Make sure you investigate all of the variable and fixed costs before you decide to purchase any product.

    Is it ever worthwhile to use Web-based collaboration? Only under certain very limited circumstances. If you plan on having regular sessions with the same attendees, then you can probably make the collaboration work. And if you can control the environment of your conference attendees and predict which browser version, applications, and operating systems they will be using, your collaboration will stand a better chance of succeeding. In any event, you should understand the costs and technologies involved and make sure you will have plenty of Internet bandwidth for any planned conference session. But given all the problems that still have to be worked out, you should probably keep your travel agent's number handy.

    David Strom is co-author of the Prentice Hall book Internet Messaging and publishes the electronic newsletter Web Informant, at

    Copyright 1999 Curtco Publishing Co.