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Communication is critical for any important task that involves more than one person — whether the site is a battlefield, a conference room or scattered offices from which people are trying to coordinate projects.

Computers can be an obstacle to communication because they tend to encourage individuals to work in isolation. At the same time, computers offer the potential for easier, more flexible communication. E-mail, for example, was the computer revolution's first major contribution to communications within and among organizations. Sending an e-mail is much faster and more reliable than dispatching a messenger with an envelope in hand to run from one office to the next, or between Congress and the White House, for example.

The next wave of computer-aided communications, however, promises to expand the channels of communication even further. Unlike e-mail, Web conferences allow real-time interaction and collaboration, and they often combine text communications with other media, such as audio and video.

Whether across campus, between cities or worldwide, Web-enabled communication and collaboration have come of age. Once inhabitants of the Internet badlands, online chatting and videoconferencing are now found in products and services that are secured with authentication, access-control lists and encryption. In addition, Web conferencing solutions can easily be integrated with agency portals and directory services. Participants can routinely take polls, collaborate on business documents, share desktop PCs and applications, and start meetings via e-mail.

Product or service?

Web conferencing solutions are available as products installed within agencies and as a service that users access from a Web browser. Many factors would lead an agency to a product-based solution, but other conditions would make a service-based solution more attractive.

For example, suppose the agency you work at supports small-business formation, and you want to host monthly online meetings for small-business owners to learn about available government programs. In this instance, a Web conferencing service might make the most sense because it would enable easy registration and accessibility for such meetings. You could support the same functionality with an agency-installed product, but you would need additional configuration to secure it.

By contrast, if agency officials deal with highly sensitive information that would confine online meetings to a few participants, a product-based solution might be a better fit. A service-based solution would also work, but the product-based solution allows more control.

We tested three Web conferencing solutions, two service-based and one product-based. Our service-based solutions included WebEx Communications Inc.'s Meeting Center and Microsoft Corp.'s Office Live Meeting. We also tested IBM Corp.'s Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing product. IBM officials also offer a Web conferencing service. We selected the products based in part on the results of an online survey of Federal Computer Week readers, who were asked about the Web conferencing software they use.

All three solutions proved well prepared for everyday use. However, WebEx Meeting Center stands out in the service-based category as a solution that offers advanced features, such as multipoint video and full-duplex voice over IP. For product-based solutions, IBM's Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing product matched WebEx's score — not because it offers identical features but because its capabilities span many platforms. It tightly integrates within nearly any agency infrastructure or business process.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting — formerly PlaceWare Conference Center — provides basic online meeting services, such as document sharing and audience polling, but lacks the advanced features found in rival offerings. Microsoft officials are updating the service, which they obtained when the company acquired PlaceWare Inc. last year. Advanced capabilities, such as audio and videoconferencing, can be added to the Microsoft Office Live Meeting service via third-party providers.

IBM's Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing

In the product-based Web conferencing category, IBM's Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing provides a feature-rich set of tools that can be integrated into most agency infrastructures.

The Web conferencing part of the product runs with the company's Domino collaboration platform. We had no trouble simulating a new agency collaboration configuration by setting up Domino on a Microsoft Windows server. We also deployed the solution in an existing iSeries-based Domino configuration to see if there were any noticeable challenges. We found none.

We decided to make the component for clients, Sametime, available for download from our server. Our test users had no problem downloading and installing the component. We also could have made the client a preinstalled component in a standard agency desktop image.

Following server setup, we moved to the client side to run ad hoc and scheduled meetings. After launching the client component, you can look at the Sametime window to quickly see who is online and available, unavailable or away. We were able to launch a Sametime window with multiple testers and execute one-on-one and multiple-person instant-messaging sessions.

In addition to the Sametime interface, agency users will also find IBM's integration with Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook messaging software useful. For example, as we composed

an e-mail message using Lotus Notes, we were able to click a button to see who was online. This support enabled us to have a quick, dynamic conversation.

IBM also offers this type of integration with Microsoft Office modules, though you will need third-party support to activate the integration. By contrast, the WebEx Meeting Center includes this integration.

After experimenting with instant messaging and presence awareness, we decided to launch a meeting on the fly and invited several testers to participate in an instant-messaging session. They were all on the internal network but in different locations. We sent a dynamic invitation to each participant, who accepted and joined the session.

We then added tools to the session, such as screen sharing, whiteboarding, audio and video. Whiteboarding allows users to simultaneously view and draw on an electronic blackboard. Once the tools were added, the meeting room was displayed, and participants could use the tools. IBM's screen sharing and whiteboarding capabilities are comparable to those of Microsoft Office Live Meeting and WebEx Meeting Center.

IBM's solution enables participants to share a specific program or an entire or partial desktop screen. We were able to share a variety of applications, including Web content and business documents. We also allowed different participants to take control of the shared items. Meeting hosts can enable this capability at their discretion. During our whiteboarding session, we were able to jointly work on a new logo for a project and save the results. And we used the built-in polling feature to determine that the group was satisfied with the new logo.

Particularly impressive was the product's ability to automatically detect audio and video setups for each participant. We did not have to configure anything, although IBM supplies tools so users can tweak their configurations and test them. We used audio and video in several one-on-one meetings, and we were impressed with the sound and video clarity.

Aside from dynamic meetings, we tried several scheduled sessions and found the results equally successful. Setting up meetings was a breeze, and we were able to automatically send invitations to each participant.

For those who want to further customize the IBM Web conferencing aspect of Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, tools are available that enable the solution to work in a variety of application settings. For example, agencies might make IBM's Web conferencing available inside an internal agency portal so users have a one-stop interface for application access, communication and collaboration.

Users will have no trouble learning to use IBM's Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing product. Its tight integration with clients and easy-to-understand interfaces will require little or no training. Administrators will also find that the solution does not require a tremendous effort to install and maintain.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting

When we first accessed the interface for Microsoft Office Live Meeting, the browser URL seemed unable to load. After some troubleshooting, we discovered that settings in our firewalls were preventing the Web site from loading. After adjusting the settings, we accessed the site using both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communications Corp. Navigator. The service does not yet support other browsers, such as Mozilla and Apple Computer Inc.'s Safari.

Once we accessed the Microsoft service, we found the layout easy to understand, which bodes well for user-training requirements. Authorized users will see three sections in the left panel of the interface:

A Meeting section in which users can join and dynamically set up or schedule meetings.

A Manage section in which users can set preferences, access the address book, and set guidelines for meeting and recordings.

A View section in which users can review reports and recordings.

The initial Microsoft service interface compares well with WebEx Meeting Center's

interface.

Like their rivals, company officials support dynamic or scheduled meetings and those that can be started via integration in Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook. We decided to start an ad hoc meeting by clicking on the Meet Now link. After a few mouse clicks to set options such as attendees and passwords, our meeting window launched successfully.

Presenters and participants can execute a number of tasks during meetings. For example, presenters can show slides, including slides that enable application viewing, desktop sharing and Web content. As the meeting progresses, they can insert new meeting content. For example, if agency employees are researching an issue, they could insert slides that point to Web-based content as they proceed with research.

Beyond content sharing and collaboration, Microsoft Office Live Meeting provides other useful features, such as a seating chart that includes color coding to reflect participants' moods. The moods on the seating chart enable users to tell presenters to speed up or slow down the meeting. Likewise, we could select colors that indicated that we had a question or needed help. By selecting the color green, we told the presenter to proceed.

Similar to the other solutions we examined, Microsoft's product provided a list of meeting participants and their availability. Chat services are available during meetings, and the service provides a view that displays a person's availability. A simple mouse click opens a chat session.

Two other features support group interaction. The first is the question manager, which allows users to ask questions that meeting presenters can answer privately or publicly. We had no trouble asking questions and providing replies.

The second feature lets the presenter select a participant to address the group. The participant can then provide input, and the meeting presenter can retake control whenever he or she wants.

We found a few of the features in Microsoft Office Live Meeting useful for agency officials who want to provide training with or without guidance. For example, administrators can set a meeting to automatically cycle through slides or to be recorded so it can be replayed later. The content of the meeting might contain instructional materials. Attendees can view meeting materials in automated form with delays between slides to take notes. We had no problems establishing automatic slide cycling during our testing.

Unlike the other solutions we tested, Microsoft Office Live Meeting does not offer audio and videoconferencing in the default service. Agencies that need to use audio and video must add these features from other providers. We were not able to test any third-party audio or video providers for this service.

When compared to the other two solutions we tested, Microsoft's product does not deliver the bells and whistles of its rivals. However, for agency officials who need core collaboration capabilities, such as document and desktop sharing, this service is easy to access and use.

WebEx Meeting Center

The WebEx Meeting Center service offers an intuitive approach in comparison to its rivals. Besides integrating into e-mail applications, such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, it can be integrated into a variety of other business applications, including applications from SAP AG, PeopleSoft Inc. and Microsoft Office. With this level of integration, users can rapidly communicate and collaborate.

We accessed the WebEx Meeting Center on the first try without any firewall issues using browsers from Mozilla, Netscape and Microsoft. Once we logged in through an encrypted connection, we viewed the initial meeting center interface. At first glance, it has too many access points, and it took us several minutes to figure out where to begin. However, this was mainly because of the service interface's configuration.

But this drawback could also be an advantage. WebEx Meeting Center interfaces can be customized for any agency. Those who choose the service should carefully review the layout and access points to prevent confusion among users. When agency officials include WebEx Meeting Center in a proof-of-concept project for Web conferencing, they should seek a small group of end users. Agency administrators will need to gauge users' satisfaction with the interface customization.

Once we grasped the initial interface, the remainder of WebEx Meeting Center's testing was impressive. The left side of the interface provided options to attend meetings, host meetings, configure the service and obtain support. We decided to hold a meeting.

After selecting the meeting type, deciding whether to add video, choosing the topic, setting the password and configuring audio options, we started our meeting immediately. A small plug-in was downloaded from the meeting center to our browser.

Similar to IBM's product-based solution, WebEx Meeting Center detected our audio and video equipment without further configuration, although you can tune your configuration. WebEx Meeting Center also offers full-screen video, which worked well, and multipoint video services, which enables participants to see one another during meetings. When selecting the teleconference option, all participants receive a message informing them of the toll-free number to dial to enable audio participation.

Once everyone joins the meeting, WebEx Meeting Center offers a number of helpful tools, and allows users to exchange instant messages, either privately and publicly, during the meeting. We successfully sent messages to the presenter and all participants.

Unique to this product, the tabbed interface allows participants to take notes and save them locally. After clicking on the notes tab, we were able to use this function.

The WebEx service also differs from other services in that its technology, called MediaTone, routes all meeting content to participants. The content is not stored in the network, which bodes well for adherence to security policies.

During our meeting, we could share a variety of documents, including Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat PDF files. When participants share presentations, WebEx Meeting Center supports animated transitions among slides and the ability to include audio and video in shared presentations. While in the meeting, participants can annotate documents. We could highlight items in documents and clear the marks when we completed discussions.

Similar to the other products, WebEx Meeting Center supports online whiteboarding, sharing of Web content and polling of meeting participants. We easily shared information from the Web and polled meeting attendees. We also could quickly share desktop and remote computers. And, once we concluded the meeting, we could send meeting content, such as shared documents, to all attendees.

WebEx Meeting Center offers comprehensive tools in a neatly integrated package that agency officials will find compares nicely with the IBM product deployed in-house.

Proof of concept

We concluded from three of the many products and services supporting Web conferencing that it is important for agency and department officials to undertake proof-of-concept work with Web conferencing solutions prior to selecting a product.

Besides meeting-specific tools, they will want to closely evaluate security closely during any proof-of-concept project. Most Web conferencing solutions include support for authentication, access-control lists and encryption. You'll likely also want to

tie Web conferencing into agency directory services, such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which many solutions also

support.

Web conferencing is clearly enterprise-ready, and agency officials who choose to deploy a Web conferencing product or service will find a noticeable improvement in staff productivity and business process automation.

Biggs, a senior engineer and freelance technical writer based in Northern California, is a regular Federal Computer Week analyst. She can be reached at maggiebiggs@acm.org.

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