The verdict is in: Tools such as Web conferencing and Web broadcasting (webcasting), can improve business communications, product-to-market time, customer relations, and the impact-- and life span--of your meetings or trade shows. Here are some of the tools, and how they can help you.

Web Collaboration Designed for one-to-one meetings or small groups (of fewer than five people), Web collaboration lets people exchange messages and data via the Internet. Best of all, it's usually free. AOL's Instant Messenger, for instance, can be downloaded for no charge at www.aol.com and used by anyone with Web access. With this running, you can see whether co-workers are online and "text chat" using a pop-up text window.

A step up in Web collaboration is another free tool, NetMeeting (www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting). This allows you to communicate with up to four others as if all were watching the same computer screen. Participants share text, voice (with lower quality than normal phone lines), a white board, and pictures, and collectively view Web sites. This product is not firewall friendly, making it difficult to use in many corporate environments.

Centra (www.centra.com) is a free service requiring a Pentium computer with Windows 95+, 32 Mb RAM, a 56K phone connection, and newer browsers. Presenters can show PowerPoint slides, annotate slides online, perform live software demonstrations (Word, Excel, etc.), and pass control to each other while using Internet audio or teleconference phone lines. Attendees can speak, vote, and send text questions to each other. Up to five people can participate for free using CentraNow; for larger groups, Centra offers a client/server application (Centra99) with an annual site license for $25,000 plus $200 per simultaneous user. Centra can handle up to 250 simultaneous users, but for full interactivity, 25 is the maximum.

One of my favorites is WebEx (www.webex.com). It offers options similar to Centra's-- handling PowerPoint presentations, allowing application sharing and demonstration, and collaborative web browsing--with the ability to comment (via text) and annotate slides in real time. In addition to a polling function, it even lets you give someone control of your desktop, as if a remote user were sitting at your desk. For a fee, you can add users, with the price ranging from 20 Cents to 35 Cents per minute for text-only messaging using phone teleconferencing with call-out capability. Although it can handle up to 300 participants, WebEx is going after the small-group, high-interactive market (according to a WebEx spokesperson, their "sweet spot" is seven attendees).

Web Meetings Web meeting products are geared for groups of fewer than 50 people with high interactivity, and up to thousands with reduced audience involvement. These products replicate the interactivity and other features of real-life conferences, allowing presenters to include slides and video, and to poll participants, while allowing the audience to pose questions.

Contigo (www.contigo.com) specializes in PowerPoint presentations and voice for up to 2,500 attendees. It will work with older IE3.0 and Netscape 3.0 browsers. Pricing is based on an annual software license of $2,799 for 10 simultaneous users for basic meetings, to $44,999 for 100 simultaneous users with extensive management tools for an unlimited number of events a year.

NetPodium from InterVU Inc. (www.netpodium. com) handles meeting of 20 to 2,000. Its difference is its ability to deliver the message live via streaming video with multimedia content. Real-time messaging and advanced polling capabilities allow more effective audience interaction than what is possible with conference calling or videoconferencing. This product requires a good connection speed and a newer computer and is often best suited for a corporate Internet environment with high bandwidth. The price is based on number of simultaneous users and meeting duration. For example, 100 people using both streaming video and audio costs $6,000 per hour. Yearly licensing was being announced as the magazine went to press, as were alliances with AT&T and MCI that should make it nearly as easy to book a Web conference as it is now to book a conference call.

PlaceWare (www.placeware.com) is a high-end option allowing full audience polling and lots of interactivity. Essentially a Web-enabled conference call requiring a telephone line for voice, up to 2,500 simultaneous users call in, log onto a password-protected area in the PlaceWare site, and wait for the moderator to begin. PlaceWare's phone-based audio provides higher quality than Web-based voice methods. Cost is relatively high: $400 annual hosting per seat. PlaceWare has also entered into partnerships with MCI, Sprint, and AT&T.

Webcasting Webcasting lets you extend your event to large audiences on the Web. Web-based steaming technology allows voice, slides, and video to be broadcast live at a fraction of the cost of satellite time and then archived and made available on demand.

BroadcastZone (www.broadcastzone.com), specializes in live Web events with speakers or celebrities who participate in a live studio interview- format program. Specifically designed for the Web and are heavily advertised, these events draw thousands of viewers who can ask questions through a text-based moderated message board. Staff view the questions and reply privately or publicly over the Web. Selected questions can be forwarded to the interviewer's laptop, and he or she can pose the question to the speaker for all to see and hear the reply.

With Yahoo's Broadcast (www.broadcast.com), your event can be videotaped, digitized, and offered on demand to viewers around the world, either for free or pay-per-view. Options include slides with audio; video with audio;or video, audio, and slides, providing a viewer experience similar to that of watching the event from the back of room.