Ah, the business trip: delayed flights, air rage, lines for rental cars, road rage and overpriced hotels.
No wonder Web-based conferencing services are taking off. With a typical service, you link to the site with a standard Web browser and use online tools to host your meetings. You can upload PowerPoint slide shows and create annotated whiteboard presentations, and participants respond via text chat and a linked-in voice-conferencing service. The latest packages support file transfers, audience polling, streaming media, videoconferencing and software sharing.
According to Collaborative Strategies LLC (www.collaborate.com), a management consulting firm in San Francisco, the data-conferencing market will grow from $550 million in 1999 to $1.2 billion this year. Web conferencing service providers include 3Cube (www.phonecube.com), Astound Inc. (www.astoundinc.com), Evoke Communications (www.evoke.com), PlaceWare (www.placeware.com), MSHOW.com, WebEx Communications Inc. (www.webex.com) and WebSentric (www.presentation.net).
Web services have come to dominate the conferencing market because they're cheaper and easier to use than the alternatives. Mainstream dial-in audioconferencing companies often make you schedule far in advance or use a special conferencing room. On the low end, you can often get by on a conference call combined with a fax machine, but that usually leads to meetings that are as confusing as they are boring. Marketing pitches in particular cry out for a graphical treatment.
A typical conferencing service offers a limited version or the first few meetings for free, then charges a per-minute, hourly or monthly rate, usually for less than 30 cents per minute or $15 to $40 per month, depending on the services used and the number of participants.
Web-based confer-encing has been around for several years, but only recently has it approached the dependability and feature depth required for business use. The latest services have managed to easily synchronize audioconferencing sessions with data presentations and scale them up to business-class capacities.
"We've built our own automated voice platform," says Paul Berberian, co-founder, president and CEO of Evoke Communications. "We can join 95 regular voice users and add another thousand using streaming technologies, and the link is seamless." Some companies partner with existing audioconferencing services to handle the voice side. Others, such as WebSentric's Presentation.Net service, avoid the phone networks altogether and use the Internet via voice-over-IP (VoIP).
While VoIP is the wave of the future, it may be a bit premature, says Lewis Ward, senior research analyst at Collaborative Strategies. "VoIP just isn't there yet," Ward says. Web conferencing, however, most certainly is.
Eric Brown, a regular contributor to pcworld.com, is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.