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Web conferencing is used to hold group meetings or live presentations over the Internet. In the early years of the Internet, the terms "web conferencing" and "computer conferencing" were often used to refer to group discussions conducted within a message board (via posted text messages), but the term has evolved to refer specifically to "live" or "synchronous" meetings, while the posted message variety of discussion is called a "forum", "message board", or "bulletin board".
In a web conference, each participant sits at their own computer, and is connected to other participants via the internet. The most basic feature of a web conference is screen sharing, whereby conference participants see whatever is on the presenter's screen. Usually this is accompanied by voice communication, either through a traditional telephone conference, or through VoIP, although sometimes text chat is used in place of voice.
See Data conferencing.
Other typical features of a web conference include:
- Slide presentations (often created through PowerPoint)
- Application sharing, in which participants can cooperatively manipulate (say) a spreadsheet on the presenter's computer
- Web co-browsing
- Annotation (allowing the presenter to highlight or mark items on the display)
- Text messaging
- File sharing
- Polls and surveys
Some web conferencing software allows conferences to be recorded for later playback.
A free web conferencing software is available at www.jhatak.com
There is a growing trend for web conferences to incorporate VoIP and live video via web cams. Hence, the boundary between web conferencing and videoconferencing is blurring and may eventually disappear.
Web conferencing is most often sold as a service, hosted on a web server controlled by the vendor, either on a usage basis (cost per user per minute) or for a fixed fee (cost per "seat"). However, some vendors make their conferencing software available as a licensed product, allowing organizations that make heavy use of conferencing to install the software on their own servers. Also, some conferencing software operates on a peer-to-peer basis, eliminating the need for a server; however, this tends to be viable only for small group meetings.
Real-time text chat facilities such as IRC appeared early in the internet's history. Web-based chat and instant messaging software appeared in the mid 1990s. In the later 1990's, Microsoft introduced a true web conferencing application, NetMeeting, a free download that used peer-to-peer communication. PlaceWare started the commercial web conferencing market in 1997, but SOHO web solutions like GoToMeeting are now giving WebEx the statistical market leader stiff competition. For Linux desktops, Workspot introduced a live desktop-sharing service in 1999, based on Virtual Network Computing.
The free web meeting client available at www.jhatak.com has taken the web meeting market by surprise. The jhatak client based on the software as a service model, has all the features available with big-time web meeting provider and yet it is totally free.
One vendor, Avacast, has taken the unique approach of bridging the gap between web conferencing and webcasting with a solution designed to deliver presentations to small groups and tens of thousands on multiple platforms including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.
Dozens of other vendors have since entered the conferencing market, including Batipi, Centra, Elluminate, Cisco, GoToMeeting, Genesys, IBM, iLinc, Infinite Conferencing, Intercall, Interwise, iVocalize, Voxwire Web Conferencing, Linktivity, Macromedia, Netspoke, Premiere Global Services, OpenSpace-Online, Oracle, Raindance Communications, LiveOffice, WebDialogs, WiredRed, Thomson NETg's Interact Now and many others. In 2003, Microsoft acquired PlaceWare and renamed it Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and began phasing out support for NetMeeting.
The market continues to expand rapidly as web conferencing becomes a more widely accepted alternative to face-to-face meetings requiring travel, and as a richer form of communication than voice-only telephone conferences.
Thus far, Web conferencing technologies have not been standardized, a significant factor in the market segmentation noted above. In 2003, the IETF established a working group to establish a standard for Web conferencing, called XCON: Centralized Conferencing Working Group. The goals of XCON, listed as part of their charter include creating:
- A mechanism for membership and authorization control
- A mechanism to manipulate and describe media "mixing" or "topology" for multiple media types (audio, video, text)
- A mechanism for notification of conference related events/changes (for example a floor change)
- A basic floor control protocol
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