Has the age of electronic conferencing finally arrived? The generalized term e-conferencing has come into vogue, encompassing webconferencing, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, collaborative tools, and e-learning tools. (See sidebar for definitions.)

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, substantially higher awareness of these meeting alternatives has emerged.

These trends require religious 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, you need to understand 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 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 offer services that allow geographically dispersed participants to see and hear each other with television-quality video and audio.

W&I: 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 W&I providers have privately branded services from major collaborative companies under their own corporate name.

Technical developments are increasing the size and reach of CDNs, bringing technical services onto new platforms. For example, you can now run webcasting services on an organization's intranet. They have increased bandwidth and made more efficient use of current bandwidth, and developed a more intuitive and comfortable end user experience. Some new features extend the feature set of available services.

Overall, the focus is on increasing speed, ease of use, and reliability while offering more flexibility for integrating webcasting with the services of other vendors and with organizations' internal systems.

Beyond Document Sharing

In the collaborative market segment, the most interesting development may be the growing convergence between 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. One company that started out providing tools to the e-learning world is expanding its focus beyond academic education and organizational training into the market for conference planning. This comes as the result of a 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.

Collaborative companies also are focusing technical developments on improving the speed, ease of use, and reliability of their products. Some of the companies are 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 one industry expert, collaborative tools are becoming less like computer systems, which are server-based, and more like the phone system, which is always available and reliable, extremely easy to use, and fully integrated into an organization's processes.

The Producers

Production service providers represent a new development for the e-conferencing industry. Just a short while ago, most large W&I providers offered their own assistance with production services. Today we are seeing a number of companies whose major, or even sole, focus is to provide those production services, but not infrastructure, to webcasting customers (and even to the W&I companies).

Videoconferencing Gets Noticed

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 current 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. Most major U.S. hotel chains offer some level of videoconferencing capability.

A videoconference system must have AV 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 are expensive.

Many videoconferences connect via ISDN (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 the Internet eventually will replace ISDN as the medium of choice for videoconferencing, but broadcast-quality video and audio over the Internet is still a ways off. 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. Since many organization networks still operate at 10 megabit per second speeds, a videoconference with 13 participants would saturate the entire network, shutting down everything else.)

Work continues on a new Internet communications protocol called Session Internet Protocol (SIP), 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 on bundling additional services with the videoconference.

As with the W&I providers, a number of companies in the videoconferencing segment offer privately branded collaborative services.

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 Lexicon

The e-conferencing industry hasn't agreed on standard terminology, but here are quick definitions that should help. If you're working on an e-conferencing project, don't be embarrassed to ask your vendors to define their terms to your satisfaction.

Audioconferencing: This term is used to describe 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 and at least one collaborative tool company (WebEx).

Collaborative tools: Interactive e-conferencing features, such as white boards, software application sharing, audience polling, Web touring (where one person leads the other e-conference participants on a tour of a Web site), and slide presentations. These tools are typically used for small group sessions of 25 or fewer attendees.

Dataconferencing: A Synonym for Collaborative Tools and the Services Offered by Their Providers

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 professional learning credits.

Edge of the Net: The process of reducing content delivery delay by having Web content hosted simultaneously at many servers out around the world.

Infrastructure: Large, specialized networks of computer servers and communications lines connected to the Internet that speed the delivery of video, audio, or interactive content. A loose synonym for CDN.

Videoconferencing: Allows meeting participants in geographically distributed 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, through an ISDN connection, or, most recently, over the Internet. The latter technology is still under development.

Webconferencing: This is a broad term that is sometimes used to denote collaborative sessions or webcasting, or both, but most often it means collaborative sessions.

Webcasting: This term is sometimes used to mean the entire universe of e-conferencing services, but in its strictest sense it 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.

Webcast 101

Webcast or Webconference?

Think of webcasting as a form of TV: a one-way transmission via the Internet. Webcasting can be used for large or small group meetings that require limited interaction, such as a keynote address.

  • Webconferencing aims at small groups of up to 25 attendees, and provides such interactive bells and whistles as application sharing, Web touring, and whiteboard annotation.

  • For both services, customers don't need to purchase or install software (other than a client program) on their computers. Planners and audience participants use software on servers that are maintained by the provider and pay only for those services used. Different providers charge differently: by the number of people who use the client software, per minute, or per person.

  • Remember this: Webcast for robust video but limited interaction; webconference for robust interactivity but limited video.

Getting Started

Before an event, it's important to consider your communications and marketing objectives. What experience do you want to create for the Web user? Full video of a speaker with live integration of speaker support? Or would an audio webcast with speaker support achieve your goals?

  • If you are webcasting a live event, consider launching a pre-event version of the Web site, with a demo webcast, at least one week before the event. Your Web audience should use it to make sure their computer and network configuration are set up correctly. Ask them to pre-register so that you can get an indication of the number of live streams.

A few other tips:

  • Polish your audio — If it's bad, users won't stick around. Get a good mix and sound level before showtime. If there are questions from the audience, secure a hand-held microphone or ask the speaker to repeat questions for Web users.

  • Check your lighting — Good high-contrast lighting makes a webcast image clearer. Presenters should be lighted from the back, side, and front.

  • Add some stage directions — A few minutes of preparation with your presenter will make a big difference. Is he or she a hugger (a person who hugs the podium) or a walker (one who roams the stage)? For a walker, place marks on the stage floor as to where they can go and still be in camera range. Adjust the lights and use a hand-held microphone.