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Collaboration market builds on Web conferencing

New horizons for this space include telepresence and useful corporate wikis, blogs

By Jason Meserve

Collaboration technologies are broadly defined as those that involve two or more people working together in a rich media application or service. Collaboration services alone – which include audio-conferencing, Web-conferencing and video-bridging services – accounted for $1 billion in revenue worldwide in the first quarter of 2007, according to Wainhouse Research, an analyst firm that focuses on Web- and videoconferencing trends and technologies.

The leading collaboration technology in terms of use (after the phone, of course) is Web conferencing, which connects people in real time via their Web browsers and traditional telephony or VoIP connection. Major players in the Web-conferencing space include WebEx (acquired by Cisco in March 2007), Microsoft with Office Live Meeting and Citrix with its GoToMeeting service. There also are many smaller niche players, such as Glance, which offers a simple screen-sharing service for giving a presentation or demonstrating how a piece of software is used, and iLinc, which targets educational organizations and training departments with a Web- and audio-conferencing system that can be used as a service, hosted internally or a combination of the two in a hybrid approach.

In Wainhouse's WebMetrics survey of over 200 users at small and large organizations spanning multiple industries for the first half of 2007, respondents said roughly one-third of the people in their organization were using Web conferencing, with that number expected to grow by 15% by the end of 2008. The majority of people using these services are mainly sharing PowerPoint slides or showing off an application on their desktop, says Alan Greenberg, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research. More interactive features such as whiteboarding tend to fall further down the list of requirements, Greenberg says.

A good sign of the market's maturity is the demise of one of the first collaboration tools: Microsoft NetMeeting. When the company retired the clunky product in 2003, half of the respondents to the WebMetrics survey were still using the software quite a bit, surprising Greenberg and his colleagues. Only recently did NetMeeting disappear off the WebMetrics radar. "It's finally gone away," Greenberg says with a sense of relief.

Web-conferencing systems can be hosted internally or accessed through a service provider on a per-minute or per-seat basis. Currently, about half of respondents to the WebMetrics survey are using hosted services, a number that Greenberg says is trending upward.

Williams Scotsman International, a company that leases mobile and modular spaces such as storage containers and temporary office trailers, is indicative of the trend toward hosted services. The company hosts iLinc's Web-conferencing system internally for its U.S.-based training application but is going with the hosted model for its new European subsidiary, says Ronald Hoogerwarf, senior training specialist at Williams Scotsman. Hoogerwarf says he is suggesting that the U.S. operations move to the hosted service as well, a move that would free up server hardware for other uses, with overall costs remaining relatively flat even with 18,000-plus minutes used each year.

Hoogerwarf says if his company was starting fresh with its Web-conferencing efforts, "I would definitely go with a hosted service because of what I know now." The only caveat to that would be if he were working with tight security restrictions or regulations requiring data to be kept behind a firewall.

A third option for companies looking for flexibility in a Web-conferencing system is to go with a hybrid model that combines internal servers with a service provider. iLinc and Cisco's WebEx both offer collaboration via that model, which allows conferences containing sensitive data to be kept behind the firewall, while larger public conferences can be hosted on more robust external systems. The hosted option can also be used for failover and overflow capacity.

Telepresence makes an entrance
Another collaboration technology gaining some buzz is telepresence, a form of videoconferencing that uses life-size displays to make its conference participants feel as if they were sitting across the room from one another. "For the price tag, a lot of companies don't have the cash for that, but in terms of raising awareness of video communication, telepresence has done that," Greenberg says. Helping the cause is Cisco's push into telepresence along with HP and traditional videoconferencing companies such as Polycom. Cisco offers its single-screen TelePresence 1000 for $79,000 and a multiscreen TelePresence 3000 system for $299,000. HP's Halo system weighs in at $249,000 while Polycom's RealPresence Experience starts at $299,000.

Finally, Web 2.0 applications like blogs and wikis are finding their way into the corporate collaboration discussion as a means of sharing data in an asynchronous manner and as an effort to help capture corporate knowledge. As younger people that have grown up with blogs, wikis and social networks enter the workforce, they expect such tools to be available to them in their jobs.

Big software vendors have been a little slower in rolling out applications to support Web 2.0-ish collaboration, but there are plenty of options (some even free) from smaller vendors and the open source community such as TikiWiki, Drupal, WordPress and SixApart's Moveable Type.

At the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), an analyst lamented on his internal blog that there were not any good Flickr or Picasa-like tools for sharing photographic data across the government's secret networks. So, the analyst downloaded an open source application at home, sucked up all the pictures on his hard drive and shared it across the Internet as an example of what he would like to see available at the DIA.

Lewis Shepherd, who was then senior technology officer and chief for requirements and research at DIA, saw the posting and had his team test out the application. After some minor tweaks to the code and plenty of security vetting, the Gallery application was rolled out 29 days later. "Within two weeks, we had people from 13 different agencies sharing tens of thousands of images across the community," Shepherd says.

The agency is also using Wikipedia services on its secret networks to allow data to be shared among analysts working on intelligence products. The first wikis went up in 2004, and the DIA'S Intelli-pedia service is now used by thousands of analysts every day, Shepherd says.

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