The Next Generation of Web Conferencing

A teaching technology that’s expandable — literally — to the stars Imagine yourself sitting on a train with a mobile telephone that can project the video portion of a Web conference eight inches onto the seatback in front of you. You can even see the small type on a PowerPoint slide.
That may be what the future of Web conferencing holds. Just eight years into the 21st century, the world of computer technology has already far surpassed what even the best 20th-century science-fiction writers ever imagined.
Spurred onward and upward by the increasing scope and utilitarianism of the Internet, Web conferencing has the potential to downsize our home planet into a small digital village with virtually limitless boundaries — that one day may extend even to the stars.
Frost & Sullivan, a leading industry analyst group, has estimated that Web conferencing software and services — including video, voice and data — will be a $9 bil-lion industry by next year. That estimate may be on the low side.
Web conferencing is already allowing more employees to work and learn from home. A CEO of a large U.S. corporation estimates that Web conferencing already saves more than $40 million per year on travel and accommodations alone.
Whether it’s joining an online training session, initiating an online brainstorming session, or reviewing a meeting, “distance” learning has never been easier. As companies become even more dispersed with outsourced partners, telecommuting employees and networks of remote branch offices, Internet conferences will further take the place of in-person training sessions.
“Web conferencing is much more than ‘plumbing,’” says A.G. Lambert, Saba’s vice president of product marketing. “It’s not just the high-speed access, it’s what’s enabled by the high-speed access.”
Web conferencing has evolved considerably over the past couple of years from a specialized application to support a virtual classroom or online marketing, to something that’s a “birthright application” and an organizational way of working.
More than 80 vendors provide Web conferencing software and many pricing options, including pay-as-you-go, subscription-based services and even a few free services. In the near future, as the vendor marketplace shakes itself out, prices can only go down.
Web conferencing is effective for sales training or to make presentations to large, dispersed groups. It also may offer Web based chat, tools that can annotate presentations, streaming audio and video, and other options. Other Web conferencing functions include desktop sharing, document sharing and electronic collaboration. The reality is that the cost of doing business on a global scale requires an affordable, reliable, innovative communication technology that works on standard networks, yet has the ability to reach out to anyone in the world.
One conferencing system, however, is not likely to serve equally well for all training needs. For instance, if the primary application is to introduce new products and systems to the field, perhaps a one-to many service is more appropriate. If the important use is to maintain standards of practice for educated professionals, then a multi-point conferencing and collaboration environment might be better.
“Among the issues that ought to be considered are security and privacy, expandability and open versus proprietary systems,” says Dr. Frank A. Greenagel, managing director of Guided Learning Systems. “For many organizations, those are not pressing issues, but the use of Web conferencing and collaboration systems is certain to grow, and some of the pain of transitioning from an early conferencing system to a more sophisticated one will be mitigated if these issues are discussed at an early stage.”
But today, reliability and the affordability remain problematic. Some feature-rich applications require high-level processors and a broadband connection. In the future, there is no doubt that such hardware and connectivity will be more readily available at lower prices.
Brian Friedlander of the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J. is finding new ways to employ limited Web conferencing in the classroom.
“With it, you can quickly assemble an adhoc video conference to bring other experts into the classroom,” notes Friedlander. “It can also enable instructors to keep in touch and supervise students in the field. But keeping the technology simple is key, so instructors won’t need to use
IT staffers to put video conferences together.”
Yet, Web conferencing as a teaching tool is not a panacea.
“It is a one-sided communication,” says Frank Gartland, vice president of product and technology for iLinc. “Virtual classrooms have to be more collaborative. Somehow, every 10minutes, you need to reach out through the Internet and engage the individual student. You have to arm instructors with multiple high-energy approaches. If a technique works in a traditional classroom, it will work in a virtual classroom—you just have to figure out how to do it.”
Gartland contends that Web conferencing as a teaching tool is a radically different experience for the instructor.
“Companies radically underestimate what has to be done to get a traditional classroom instructor to be successful. Radio personalities know you can’t have any dead air. Instructors have to be specifically trained for the studio environment. They must know how to use the technology.”
High-definition (HD) video is taking the television world by storm. Better video will also increase the popularity of Web conferencing.
“We’ve dramatically increased the quality of free video over the Web,” says iLinc’s Gartland. “We’ve done some mock-ups of increased clarity of image and with the 16- by-9 image ratio onWeb conferencing software. More bandwidth is becoming available every day, and the technology to compress the data is taking up less bandwidth. I’m eagerly awaiting the day that high-definition video becomes available.”
Adds Philippe Schwartz, CEO of Oovoo: “Video today is very good, even with a simple Webcam. But this whole area is evolving toward more and better quality. The hardware and Internet lines are getting better, plus more high-quality video is being integrated into laptops and personal computers. There’s a very bright future for e-learning-enabled communication.”
Combining Web conferencing with the advantages of Web 2.0 systems is also on the near horizon.
“There’s an exciting convergence in some of the Web 2.0 applications with Web conferencing to enrich knowledge within organizations,” says Saba’s Lambert. “It is capable of becoming a way to connect people — not just for Web conferencing — and to build networks of knowledge and relationships.”
Not only is hosting Internet conferencing application becoming less costly, but so also are the cost of standard PC servers and widely available high-speed Internet connectivity. Delivering CPU-intensive applications such as high-quality desktop sharing, multi-party voice and video conferencing is already available to most every organization, and at all levels. There has already been a notable movement away from managed services to self-hosted applications.
However, analysts believe that mid-market organizations will not soon have the financial wherewithal to purchase expensive boardroom video conferencing systems. They still seek an affordable, multipurpose solution that allows individuals outside of their network to interact on a more personal level, share PC desktop materials, and efficiently conduct hands-on training. Another possibility is archiving a Web conference, which is not often done today. “You need both the real-time connection and non-real-time connection,” Lambert asserts. “By recording a Web conference, you also have the ability to produce asynchronous collaboration and to able to mark it up and reuse parts of it. The future is a platform for building a knowledge network and a community within an organization.”
 As in the example cited in the first paragraph of this article, Web conferencing holds the promise of becoming more mobile.
“More mobile platforms are getting stronger Internet access — beyond phones, ultra-mobile PCs and other mobile Internet devices,” says Oovoo’s Schwartz. “I foresee a smaller version of what laptops are today, which people will travel with. There is clear indication from vendors even this year you will be able to receive pretty amazing quality.”
iLinc’s Gartland concurs. “Web conferencing through mobile devices is a possibility in the future. Today, even iPhone screens aren’t big enough to make it much more than a cool gimmick. But why couldn’t a phone have the capability to project an image eight inches away onto a wall? That’s exciting to me. So I think mobile technology will be another explosion in Web conferencing space. If that ever happens, people will be able to learn anytime, anywhere.”

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