Web conferencing 101

First, a little disclaimer: no matter how you divide conferencing solutions, the categories you use to group them are changeable and can be revised immediately. Combinations of different elements make some applications basically impossible to categorize. Depending on how you look at it, mailing lists are actually a form of conferencing, as is email. Real time versus asynchrony even blur as text, audio and video merge in different combinations.

That being said, let’s take a look at some of the categorizations of conferencing solutions.

1. Real-time conferencing. Real-time conferencing refers to synchronous communications in which participants are virtually present at the same time and can actively interact as if they were physically in the same place. Some typical and common applications are instant messaging and interactive chat, participatory webinars, interactive webcasting, online interactive teleseminars.

Now these are mostly web-based, but the old conference call is still widely used. Call-in teleseminars are also common. Today, however, they are merging into web applications as VoIP services become more widely available with gateways to landline phone systems.

2. Video conferencing is generally considered separately as it is a far more bandwidth intensive activity. To achieve reasonably acceptable simultaneous live video and audio, you need a significant amount of bandwidth. And the more active those involved are, the more serious the problem becomes. Internet chat services using webcams are a fairly basic form of video conferencing that is quite popular for individual person-to-person connections, but is clearly not of sufficient quality for business purposes or for larger groups. Some video conferences are one-way videos with interactive audio. Others require high-speed networks or dedicated connections. High-end solutions can work well for large companies because of the savings that come from reducing travel expenses and time lost from productive work.

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3. Forums, message boards, bulletin boards and so on. These are asynchronous forms of conferences or discussion solutions. Even blogs and wikis can sometimes fall into this category. Generally, these are linear or chained, topic-centric hangouts with chronologically marked sequential entries that form a discussion. Some prefer the linear mode as it is easier to use and follow, while others insist that branching tree-like structures often have more leeway and the opportunity to develop sub-themes that are integrated into the main theme. Whatever one’s preference, these are excellent solutions given the nature of the evolving Internet and the need for participation from people in time zones scattered around the world. Real-time communication can be a burden when day/night cycles are heavily compensated. Forums, with their purposeful focus, can develop rich and engaged communities that can be a source of extremely valuable knowledge and experience.

4. Collaborative team or group based work environments. These types of solutions can also include online virtual classrooms in various forms. The most sophisticated of these solutions include both real-time and asynchronous modes with integrated audio, video, messaging, and conferencing capabilities. While some of this software is used over the internet (again, some collaborative workspaces have been developed based on blogging platforms, and even forum software is sometimes used in this way), the more resource-intensive versions are generally used on dedicated networks and high-volume intranets uses bandwidth. Many of these applications are more geared towards in-house use.

So do you think that covers everything? These four areas in particular reflect a tremendous growth in available modalities for conferencing and meetings compared to just a few years ago. Remember that old landline conference call? It used to be a big deal to be able to add a third person to a call. Now you can spend months just looking for available solutions.

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And that really doesn’t affect systems like desktop video conferencing, the extensions of teleconferencing, and the interplay of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services with all forms of web conferencing. Attending teleseminars abroad, once unaffordable for many, is now an accessible alternative with low-cost VoIP gateway services that allow fixed-price calls to any landline or mobile phone.

As the speed of Internet service continues to increase and the price decreases, the utility of this type of conferencing solution will continue to increase. The growth of the cybersphere and the development of communities of purpose and affinity on the Internet will continue to drive the development and integration of conferencing and communications software and services. Conferencing software is quite literally at the heart of the new realities being created by the explosive growth in Internet usage in all parts of the world. These are social applications and they are changing the way people live, interact and see each other.

There is another form of widely used “conference” software that is rarely mentioned in this context. Multi-user real-time online games of all kinds, from role-playing to live gambling (play poker with your friends, live roulette, etc.). Some of these systems are sophisticated and loved by many people. Their appeal lies not just in the ability to be someone (or something) else vicariously or to do things that may not be available locally, but in the social interactions and the communities that develop. While browsing is a fairly anti-social activity, humans are social creatures and the popularity of all sorts of solutions that offer interactive contact and a sense of community reinforces this.

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The marketing of audio conferencing in the form of teleseminars and recorded audio streams has seen tremendous growth in the last year alone. Bandwidth still limits the quality of video, often used with pre-recorded audio, to fairly static material. However, this is changing as compression and streaming technologies improve. The big breakthrough that is yet to come is the technology to effectively and inexpensively create firstly high quality one-way live video and moreover live interaction multi-way video over the Internet. If it seems like a difficult, maybe impossible, task, think again about what happened in the last five years. And the future is coming faster and faster.

Copyright 2005 Richard Keir