Chris Reed, vice president of corporate strategy for Centra Software, a Lexington, Mass.-based maker of e-learning tools, says that his company's first “Blended E-Learning Conference,” in July 2001, drew more than 2,500 attendees to the three-day online event, which included 27 separate educational sessions. Increasing numbers of insurance companies, including Chubb and Aetna, as well as insurance associations such as the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, are putting seminars and continuing education courses online (see page 8).
Is the age of e-conferencing finally here?
The somewhat generalized term “e-conferencing” that has come into vogue encompasses webconferencing, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, collaborative tools, and e-learning tools (see sidebar, page 49, for definitions). Over the past 18 months, a lot has happened in the e-conferencing industry. Some key players have changed; products and services have evolved, and many of the market segments, technologies, and providers have converged.
Perhaps the most prominent change is the emergence of e-conferencing as an industry in itself. Wall Street analysts are tracking its movements; industry portals are springing up, and, since September 11, it has been in the public eye as never before.
What Is E-Conferencing, Anyway?
These trends require meeting planners to stay abreast of new technologies, new business models, and new competitive forces. To get a feel for the e-conferencing industry today, let's examine the industry's four segments:
Webcasting and infrastructure providers supply production and hosting services and have built large-scale Content Delivery Networks. CDNs speed webcast delivery by hosting content simultaneously at many different servers around the world.
Collaborative software/webware providers offer software, usually Web-based, and/or Web subscription services for conducting highly interactive online meetings and e-learning sessions.
Production service providers work with meeting planners to produce online events, providing everything from camera operators to writers, directors, and editors.
Videoconferencing providers allow geographically dispersed participants to see and hear each other with television-quality video and audio.
Each of these market segments offers some interesting new developments for meeting planners to watch.
Building Networks, Adding Tools
For webcasting and infrastructure providers, the majority of recent developments focus on improving the performance of existing services and on forming alliances with companies in other market segments. In fact, several of the major webcasting and infrastructure providers have privately branded services from major collaborative companies under their own corporate name.
Technical developments are increasing the size and reach of content delivery networks, bringing technical services onto new platforms, increasing bandwidth and making more efficient use of current bandwidth, and developing a more intuitive and comfortable end-user experience. Some new specialized features, such as integrated transaction processing offered by San Francisco-based Digital Island, extend the feature set of available services.
Overall, the focus is on increasing speed, ease of use, and reliability while offering much more flexibility — both for integrating webcasting with the services of other vendors and with a company's internal systems.
Beyond Document Sharing
In the collaborative market segment, the most interesting development may be the increasing convergence of traditional e-collaboration and e-learning. Eighteen months ago, collaborative tools focused primarily on document sharing and interactivity for small meetings or presentations. But recent developments focus on the tools needed for educational sessions, such as online testing, surveying, and Q&A functions.
PlaceWare, for example, a traditional e-collaboration company based in Mountain View, Calif., has just announced a major e-learning initiative with its new Virtual Classroom product.
And Centra Software, which started out providing tools to the e-learning world, is expanding its focus beyond academic education and corporate training and into the market for conference planning.
Centra's move comes as a result of an academic study conducted by the University of Tennessee that says “blended e-learning,” which combines on-site education with e-learning, is substantially more effective than on-site education alone. (More information about this study can be found at www.pemba.utk.edu/overview/Presentation/PEMBA_files/frame.htm.)
Collaborative companies, like the webcasting and infrastructure companies, are also focusing their research and technical developments on improving the speed, ease of use, and reliability of their products. Some companies, such as San Jose-based WebEx Communications, are also positioning their products for use as a “Web service,” which means that their services can be integrated into a customer's internal systems using standard Web technologies.
One other important development is the shift from “server-centric” thinking to “communication-tool” thinking.
Although the underlying technology behind this shift is complex, the effect on the user is simple. According to Mark Altenberg, senior product manager at WebEx, “Collaborative tools are becoming less like computer systems, which are server-based, and much more like the phone system, which is always available and reliable, extremely easy to use, and fully integrated into a company's standard business process.”
Production service providers represent a new development for the e-conferencing industry. Eighteen months ago, most of the large webcasting and infrastructure providers offered their own assistance with production services. Today we're seeing a number of companies whose major, or even sole, focus is to provide those production services, but not infrastructure, to webcasting customers.
Stephanie Franks, founder of MarKomm Consulting, Denver, and ConferZone, a Web portal dedicated to the e-conferencing industry (www.conferzone.com), says that over the last two and a half years, nearly 95 percent of her consulting practice has moved from traditional meeting consulting to online production consulting.
Similarly, Diane Kegley, COO of WorldBridge Webcasting, a Los Angeles production services provider staffed by veteran meeting planners and multimedia production experts, says that her company was spun off in July from its parent company, Strategic Media Alliance, to leverage WorldBridge's traditional event planning strengths into the emerging specialization of online event planning. It now provides production services for Yahoo!Broadcast, Meeting Professionals International, and other top-tier organizations.
The high-profile use of videoconferencing by President Bush and other government officials in the days after the September 11 attacks gave this technology a new visibility around the world.
Because of its reliance on specialized equipment, videoconferencing is not as widespread as Internet-based e-conferencing, but hotels and convention centers continue to aggressively install videoconferencing equipment on premises. Most major U.S. hotel chains offer at least some level of videoconferencing capability.
A videoconference system must have audiovisual equipment (monitor, camera, microphone, and speaker) as well as a means of transmitting information between sites. A broadband satellite connection with studio-quality equipment produces an excellent full-motion video connection, but the equipment and transmission is expensive.
Many videoconferences connect via ISDN (short for Integrated Services Digital Network) because it is an economical solution for high-quality videoconferencing. ISDN works over regular copper telephone lines and provides smooth audio and video.
Many believe that the Internet will eventually replace ISDN as the medium of choice for videoconferencing, but broadcast-quality video and audio over the Internet is yet to be realized. The problem is bandwidth.
While a streaming video signal (such as a live webcast) can travel over the Internet, videoconferencing's H.323 standard is too bulky. (Using H.323, each person in a videoconference requires a dedicated link of 0.768 megabits per second. And since many corporate networks still operate at 10 megabit-per-second speeds, a videoconference with 13 participants would saturate the entire corporate network, shutting down everything else.)
According to Bob Rettig, manager of advanced conferencing systems at WorldCom in Arlington, Va., work continues on a new Internet communications protocol — called Session Internet Protocol — which should substantially reduce the bandwidth requirements for Internet-based videoconferencing, but SIP probably won't be available until sometime in 2003.
Until then, developments in this segment will focus on deploying today's technology to as many potential meeting locations as necessary and in bundling additional services with the videoconference. As with the webcasting and infrastructure providers, a number of companies in the videoconferencing segment offer privately branded collaborative services from major vendors.
Improvements in video capture and display technologies also continue to move the segment forward. One particularly intriguing example is “Teleportation” technology, which transmits a full-sized, 3-D image of a speaker to a remote location for live, interactive presentations.
As each of the four e-conferencing industry segments moves forward through the next year, we can expect more cross-segment partnerships; more emphasis on reliability, ease of use, and integration into customer systems; and additional focus on delivering more services over existing bandwidth.
The e-conferencing industry hasn't agreed on standard terminology, but here are some quick definitions that should help you along. When you're working on a project, don't be afraid to ask vendors to define their terms.
Audioconferencing: All types of telephone conferencing, including Internet telephone conferencing.
CDN: Content Delivery (or Distribution) Network. The large networks of servers placed around the world by many of the webcasting and infrastructure suppliers (including Yahoo!Broadcast, Akamai, and Digital Island) and at least one collaborative tool company (WebEx). See Edge of the Net and Infrastructure.
Collaborative tools: Interactive e-conferencing features, such as white boards, software application sharing, audience polling, Web touring (where one person leads participants through a Web site), and slide presentations. Typically used for sessions of 25 or fewer attendees.
Dataconferencing: A synonym for collaborative tools and the services offered by companies providing those tools.
E-conferencing: Any sort of meeting, broadcast, or collaborative session using Internet or video technology.
E-learning tools: Closely akin to collaborative tools, e-learning tools are designed specifically for educational sessions and generally include features to facilitate testing, a method for instructors to call on pupils, and tools for verifying attendance and completion of assignments for CME credits.
Edge of the Net: The process of reducing content delivery delay by having Web content hosted simultaneously at servers spread out around the world.
Infrastructure: Large, specialized networks of servers and communications lines connected to the Internet that speed the delivery of video, audio, or interactive content. See CDN, above.
Videoconferencing: Allows meeting participants in geographically diverse locations to see and hear each other on large-screen monitors with high-quality audio. A videoconference may be transmitted over a broadband satellite connection, via an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connection, or over the Internet. The latter is still under development.
Webcasting: Sometimes refers to the universe of e-conferencing services, but in its strictest sense refers to a one-way, broadcast-like transmission of information over the Internet, accomplished through streaming media and aimed at large audiences. In practice, most webcasting companies offer some level of two-way interactivity, and the difference between webcasting and webconferencing is blurring.
Webconferencing: This is a broad term that is sometimes used to denote collaborative sessions or webcasting, or both, but it most often means collaborative sessions.
E-Sources for Conferences
Here is a sampling of the companies serving each of the e-conferencing market segments. Additional listings can be found at www.conferzone.com.
Webcasting is typically used when an organization wants to reach a large audience and primarily intends to broadcast information.
- Akamai Technologies Inc.: www.akamai.com
- Digital Island Inc.: www.digitalisland.net
- Mshow: www.mshow.com
- Qwest Digital Media: www.qwestdigitalmedia.com
- Worldcom Conferencing: http://emeetings.wcom.com/index.php3
- Yahoo! Broadcast: http://business.broadcast.com/home.asp
Collaborative and E-Learning tools are used for small groups in which a high degree of real-time interaction is required. Organizers typically must buy a license, but participants generally download the client software for free.
- Centra Software: www.centra.com
- Mshow: www.mshow.com
- Placeware: www.placeware.com
- Raindance: www.raindance.com
- WebEx Communications: www.webex.com
Production Companies provide support for e-conferences. Although large webcasting providers often have similar services, smaller companies with specialized backgrounds can sometimes offer another level of expertise.
- 21st Century Media: www.21stcenturymedia.com
- Blue Sun Media: www.bluesunmedia.com
- Global Speak: www.globalspeak.com
- MarKomm Consulting: www.markomm.com
- Premiere Conferencing: www.premconf.com
- World Bridge Webcasting: www.wbwebcasting.com
Videoconferencing is most useful in circumstances requiring high-quality visual interaction.
- Audio Visual Innovations: www.aviinc.com
- Global Crossing: www.globalcrossing.com
- Sprint Video Conferencing: www.sprintbiz.com
- Teleportec: www.teleportec.com
- Worldcom Conferencing: http://e-meetings.wcom.com/index.php3
- Audio Visual Innovations: www.aviinc.com