Thanks to the Web, it's possible to create virtual meetings that have some of the advantages of the face-to-face kind.
Fee-based virtual meeting centers have been around for awhile, but ActiveTouch Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., recently launched WebEx, a free service.
WebEx lets you schedule meetings and conduct them online. You can use it simply by registering at the company's Web site at http://www.webex.com.
Everyone who wants to join the meeting has to set up his or her own free account. The person who initiates the meeting is assigned a meeting number, which is then given out to anyone who will attend. Anyone with the number can join the meeting. While you're in the "meeting," you can chat with other participants by typing comments and responses in a little box near the bottom of the screen.
In addition to chatting, you can share documents and presentations. A PowerPoint presentation, for example, can be shown to everyone attending. A highlight tool lets you draw on it or point to a specific part. You can also display and highlight other documents created in Microsoft Word, Excel and other applications.
One feature lets you take everyone in the meeting on a tour of Web sites. Once you establish the meeting, the leader or anyone designated by the leader can simply use his or her Web browser to visit sites, which will automatically be displayed on everyone else's computer.
The system also can be used to demonstrate software. You can broadcast the screen from any program you're using to everyone in the meeting. Everything the leader does will be seen by everyone in the meeting.
By default, only the person who sets up the meeting has the ability to annotate what is on the screen or modify documents that are being shared. However, the person who sets up the meeting can share that control by selecting member privileges from a menu. Of course, we're all used to hearing each other talk during meetings, and that's also possible with WebEx.
One easy but potentially expensive way to make that happen is to set up a telephone conference call that takes place along with the Web-based meeting. It would be nice to have the option of talking via the Internet, but that's not available now. WebEx has announced that it will soon offer voice and video collaboration as an option to users. The system does not offer videoconferencing.
In addition to conducting staff meetings, you can use WebEx to collaborate with clients and prospects or link to a WebEx conference from a Web site to create a place where you can offer technical support or real-time chats with anyone who wants to chime in.
The system has some rough edges and a few caveats. For one thing, the leader has to be careful what he or she does during a meeting. Depending on how you have the system configured, anything you do on your PC might be visible to anyone else in the meeting, so be careful which files you open or what Web sites you visit. And be sure to sign out when the meeting is over or you'll continue to broadcast your screen to others.
Another problem has to do with speed. It worked well when I tested it on two computers connected via a high-speed cable modem, but, as I expected, it was considerably slower when I conducted a meeting with a colleague who was signed on via a regular telephone modem.
There are extra delays the first time you use it so be sure to tell your participants to register well in advance of their first meeting.
I also found the system to be a bit confusing to use and the help menus weren't much help.
The size of free meetings is limited to six participants. The company hopes to make money by selling premium services, including the ability to conduct larger meetings. They also will set up conference calls at 12 cents per minute for each participant in the United States. For $99 a month they will create a custom version of a Web-Ex meeting center that looks as if it's part of your Web site. The system strikes me as an excellent way to share presentations with colleagues who can't all gather in the same location. But given a choice, I prefer to be in the same room as the people I'm meeting with.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX (1070). He can be reached at email@example.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."