Things are changing fast in the world of data and video conferencing.
Hardware prices are falling, Internet-based conferencing is on the rise and key PC market players are moving into the market more aggressively.
Take the announcement of Microsoft and video conferencing specialist Picturetel, for instance. In June, the companies revealed they were submitting their jointly owned application-sharing protocol to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for consideration as a new component of the T.120 ITU standard for interoperable data conferencing. The ITU is the international standards organisation responsible for ensuring interoperability between telecoms systems worldwide.
Although it may sound like a boring move into the arcane world of telecoms standards, it is actually a vital step towards the struggle to get an official seal of approval for a technology that could encourage corporate PC users to buy digital cameras, extra processing power, high-speed modems, operating system up-grades and fast Internet connections from service providers.
Data conferencing allows users to collaborate on screen-based projects from remote locations, such as enabling document changes, presentations and Cad drawings - basically anything that can be viewed on screen. And since this technology allows the Internet to be used as a method of data transport, it has much wider applicability than any previous moves to establish data conferencing as a widespread application.
It is also cross-platform, meaning that users with Macs, Unix systems and PC Lans are potential customers for this kind of technology. Microsoft and Picturetel are submitting the technology for consideration with the goal of making cross-platform interoperability for application-sharing possible. The current standard, T.120, includes interoperability for whiteboards and file transfer, but does not address cross-platform interoperability for sharing applications.
ITU officials appear enthusiastic about the proposed standard. 'This contribution represents the culmination of the T.120 standardisation process, whereby we can create a fully interoperable method for users to exchange and collaborate with images and data,' says Pat Romano, director of advanced development at Polycom and editor of the ITU T.120 standardisation effort. 'This proven protocol represents the most logical foundation for the international standard.'
A boost was given to the possible success of this protocol with its inclusion in both Net Meeting, Microsoft's recently launched Internet conferencing product, and Picturetel's Live Share Plus data-conferencing software.
The companies say the establishment of this protocol as an open, international standard will allow two or more users to share applications simultaneously across the Internet, incorporate Lans or the public telephone network, regardless of their hardware platform or operating system.
They also predict it will enable business professionals and their clients to edit documents, make remote presentations and telecommute between home and office.
But Microsoft and Picturetel are not the only firms backing this horse.
Intel, Xerox subsidiary Liveworks, Network MCI Conferencing, Polycom and Vivo Software are among its many supporters.
The most interesting of the new products based on this technology has to be Net Meeting. It has has been available for downloading in beta from Microsoft's Web site for a few months and probably ranks as the best data conferencing system for the PC market.
Microsoft claims that Net Meeting is 'the Internet's first real-time communications client that includes support for international conferencing standards and provides true multiuser application-sharing and data-conferencing capabilities'. Net Meeting aims to make voice and data communications over the Internet as easy as making a phone call.
Microsoft's strategic reason for giving away Net Meeting is that it is another element of the suite of offerings available with Microsoft Internet Explorer and adds another reason for users with switch from Netscape Navigator to Explorer.
'Working together in real-time will be the next big thing on the Web,' claims Brad Chase, general manager of the Internet platform and tools division at Microsoft. 'Net Meeting supports application sharing and conferences among more than two people, and international standards for the broadest possible interoperability. It's as easy as making a phone call.'
While other data conferencing applications are available for use over the Internet, Microsoft is pushing the notion that unlike other Internet conferencing software, the application-sharing capabilities in Net Meeting allow two or more users to share virtually any existing Windows-based application across the Internet, a corporate Lan or the public telephone network.
Microsoft also points out that by using Net Meeting, any participant in a conference can remotely control shared applications, enabling remote presentations, telecommuting or Web-based customer service.
Meanwhile, the company claims Net Meeting's whiteboard, chat, file transfer and shared-clipboard features allow groups of people to conduct meetings, share information, and jointly annotate diagrams, text and comments in a shared workspace.
Microsoft is making a great play of the work it has done in supporting those key International ITU standards for multiuser data conferencing.
The standards are supposed to help create a truly interoperable multivendor Internet conferencing world that will include multipoint servers, videoconferencing systems, secure firewalls, room conferencing systems, interactive whiteboards and other third-party products.
Net Meeting also aims to support the standards propounded by the ITU and the Internet engineering taskforce (IETF). The ITU T.120 data conferencing standard enables real-time multiuser collaboration and file transfer over the Internet, intranet or telephone network, while the IETF has a standard called the real-time protocol (RTP) used to transmit and synchronise real-time streams over the Internet.
Perhaps surprisingly, traditional Microsoft arch-rival Apple is at the head of this line-up. 'Apple is committed to supporting international standards, including T.120 and H.323, for conferencing and collaboration over the Internet,' said Carlos Montalvo, director of the Interactive Media Group at Apple Computer. 'Our support for these standards is a key element of our strategy for ensuring a robust environment for conferencing and collaboration over the Internet between Mac and Windows-based platforms.'
Microsoft is also using Net Meeting to boost its own standards, such as the Active X technologies conferencing platform, launched in March at the Microsoft professional developers conference.
Microsoft pledges this will allow developers to easily add conferencing capabilities to their products using a software development kit that is also available on the Web.
It will come as a surprise to no one that telecos are keen to support all efforts to create more demand for bandwidth - and US telco MCI is more than happy to oblige.
'The Internet continues to grow by leaps and bounds, both in the number of users and the availability of new applications, such as Net Meeting Internet conferencing software,' said Philip Knell, president and general manager of Network MCI Conferencing. 'MCI plans to deliver multipoint Internet conferencing services that are compatible with Net Meeting.
There are a number of opportunities that data conferencing applications like Net Meeting create for dealers. Not only do they broaden the range of solutions that can be offered to customers and the kind of hardware and software bundles that Vars and dealers can create, but they also drive a bigger push for desktop power and bandwidth.
If customers want to run data conferencing applications like Net Meeting, they could do with extra Ram, perhaps extra hard disk space and faster processors. To make the data conferences as pleasant as possible, the highest possible data transmission rates should be in use, and that means either getting fast modems or making a jump to ISDN digital data lines.
Making certain that they all work together properly will take some expertise, particularly if corporate users are going to have enough confidence to regularly use data conferencing applications. That means sales of consulting services to install, maintain and train the systems in corporate environments.
Data conferencing promises to add considerable collaborative computing capabilities to PCs and make some interesting new niche opportunities for dealers and Vars that have the expertise, the foresight and the patience to make the most of them.
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