At next weeks Collaboration Technology Conference in New York, one session is titled "Conferencing Applications: Are They Becoming Commodities?"
The answer is a resounding yes. There are literally hundreds of appliances, applications and service options available for buyers who dont want to use WebEx or Microsoft Live Meeting, the frontrunners in the Web conferencing arena.
But to my mind, a more important question is: Why is Web conferencing even considered a collaborative technology? After all, 99 percent of the time, the actual application of Web conferencing technology is about feeding and consuming information, not jointly manipulating it.
Certainly, screen sharing has its place as a means of letting a couple of people work on a document simultaneously. But when people work together, most work asynchronously. In fact, as demands on our time increase and collaborators become more geographically dispersed, opportunities for lengthy synchronous collaboration become more and more scarce.
Instead, investment in collaboration should be happening at a workflow level, where higher-level tools and Web services make it easier for nontechnical types to build and use applications around everyday tools. Good examples of this concept can be found in Workshares Workshare Professional 4.0 and NextPages NextPage 1.5.
Both of these rely primarily on Microsoft Word and Outlook for managing group document editing, so users rely on the tools they already use. Versioning follows the documents and presentation of changes works well. Another component that would be a nice addition to make Workshare and Outlook more Web-aware is the ability to store documents in a Web-based document management system, with the document management systems publishing options available from directly within the content authoring application, be it Word or Excel.
It shouldnt matter whether users use a browser or the native application to access a document. Taking this another step forward, there should be no obstacles that prevent two people at different locations from jointly editing a document.
Tools such as XFormxs Conferral 1.0 allow users to initiate such a joint editing session, albeit via a screen-sharing Web conference, from directly within an application. This technology would be an excellent embedded tool within a broader document workflow application. When under deadline pressure, sometimes joint editing will be an important option, provided it works in the context of broader document management procedures.
I dont mean to completely dismiss the idea of Web conferencing: It certainly has an important role. I welcome commoditization to drive down pricing and make conferencing products more broadly accessible. In fact, applying the same principle of using the application at hand, rather than a service, makes sense.
Advanced Realitys Jybe launches a Web conference directly from the browser through a plug-in as well. There isnt a secondary step of going to a service or other application to schedule or configure a Web conference. Advanced Reality provides the service that manages connections, or a company could buy a server and host a session internally, in a way that is transparent to the user—something Id like to see more of in the future.
eWeek Labs Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at email@example.com.