meeting on the Net (1997)

If the Internet does anything well it’s that it helps people work together. E-mail – soon to become as passe as the morning post, offers a painless way of dropping a line. It can say something like ‘yes, see you next week’ or more economically ‘see you’. People using e-mail far exceed all use of the World Wide Web.

On the Internet too are discussion areas and chat areas, but when it comes to getting people together, without baggage, travel or hassle there has to be a way forward and there is. Lately the idea of meeting on the Internet has become unusually easy to achieve. Using ‘meeting’ or ‘conference’ software, people can connect to the network and talk to a face. They speak into the computer microphone, hear through the speaker system and can see each other’s screen. If it sounds like someone is pulling your mouse cable, they aren’t quite. Those who have a video camera connected to their computers, and a fast-ish connection between them could find something ready for popular consumption. Maybe the best feature of all is that it’s pretty much free.

It might sound like other software widgets that people add to their machines – and later abandon. The Internet phone was one and in theory people used it to make international calls at local rates. The longer life ingredient in the new product – Microsoft’s latest release of NetMeeting – is that it transmits data in standard ways, and in much the same way that Internet multimedia moves at present. In computer speak, if anyone’s kit uses T.120 audio and H.323 video standards it ought to work with Netmeeting. In short, a mix of fussy till now hardware set-ups can work together.

The system allows several people to see and talk to the same screen, so they can work together on a document or a design. A click allows a ‘window’ running say, a graphics or page make-up program to appear on each screen, and those in a ‘meeting’ can move the mouse and take control of the system. The mouse pointer shows the name of person moving things round the screen and intriguingly, to save on bandwidth the computers exchange mouse movements and keyboard presses rather than images. Sending a file to each other is as easy as it should be: they just drag it onto the name of the recipient.

Meetings aside here is something for people running customer service desks, technical support, training and distance learning. In practice, the customer could click on a Web page and find someone to take the reins of their machine. The opportunities this presents may be legion.

Because this is a standards based tool, the data sharing feature is a simple add on to many corporate tools. For example, businesses with integrated PC and telephone systems who run voice conference calls, can now share data as well. Those with PC based videoconferencing systems can not only benefit from the same, they can invite less well equipped colleagues to join in – if they have no camera, the outsider will be at least able to see and hear.

Whereas the killer feature of a video phone is waiting, gagging even for a faster connections between computers, it is surprising how much of NetMeeting and the Netscape’s own brand ‘Conference’, will work over a standard dial-up modem connection. True, elephants don’t squeeze through keyholes, but sharing data and applications isn’t the problem here, nor strangely is the choppy sound quality.

The video quality is the weak part: the image size and refresh automatically with the speed of the connection. A direct link over the local office network is the happy extreme, whereas that over a modem and the Internet is the other. Connections over ISDN and Kilostream lines may work, and direct connections, such as a modem to modem connection, will be better than going through the Internet.

Most impressive was finding out how few clicks it all takes to set up. With the news that NetMeeting will merge into the next version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, maybe less clicks too. And while there’s no talk of anything coming for Apple machines, another product Farallon’s Look@Me currently allows Windows users to work a Mac screen in their Web Browser and vice versa.

People do of course have to be at their machines at the same time. On a local network, people can click on a Web page phone book to connect to another for a chat. The rest need to connect to an outside server, called an Internet Locator Server, through which the communication is channelled. Thoughtfully, the system sends them an e-mail if they’re not on-line.

If this takes off, and the idea at least will, Internet providers may soon offer to call the user when someone wants to ‘meet’ them. In the wings is Internet call waiting, where they interrupt your current call to say there’s another coming in. And if that is going too far, it’s the best excuse to pack and actually go see someone.


Contacts

NetMeeting is for Windows 95 or NT.

Microsoft NetMeeting is at www.microsoft.com/netmeeting

Netscape is at www.netscape.com

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