Product Review: NetMeeting rocks data sharing

In an increasingly dispersed corporate environment, it's becoming more common to collaborate with co-workers who live in a completely different time zone, making it difficult to meet face-to-face. Windows NetMeeting 3.01, the latest upgrade to Microsoft's standards-based videoconferencing client, is a powerful data-collaboration tool that allows end users to share ideas and participate in virtual meetings over an IP network. When time is of the essence, and it's not possible to work the problem out over the phone, NetMeeting is the next best thing to being there.

NetMeeting now offers a host of improvements, including a svelte user interface, new security features, and better application sharing. The video is still painfully slow, but given the fact that it's free, NetMeeting provides a great deal of value. In fact, White Pine's CU-SeeMe, NetMeeting's closest competitor, provides many similar features. However, if you have a mix of Windows and Macintosh systems, you should consider CU-SeeMe because it offers the cross-platform interoperability that NetMeeting lacks.

One of NetMeeting's most interesting new features is Remote Desktop Sharing. Similar to application sharing, this feature should be well received by help desk personnel. For example, I could reboot Windows NT servers or check transaction logs, capabilities typically found in enterprise LAN management products. There may be some security risks with Remote Desktop Sharing, and therefore it is probably best suited to companies that plan to remotely control an end user's system, not a server.

Although NetMeeting's overall performance has improved in this release, the video frame rates are still abysmal, even when using beefy systems, fast connections, and high-end internet cameras. In my tests, I used a mix of cameras from companies such as Intel, Sorenson, Nogatech, and ACS Innovations International, but never was I able to get an acceptable frame rate of at least eight frames per second. The video performance lagged regardless of whether I used a dial-up connection, a switched 10Base-T LAN, or a fast Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line connection.

Conversely, the data conference performance is vastly improved compared with version 2.11. There is no irritating lag when sharing a whiteboard, and every action is almost instantaneous. This version also makes data transfer more secure by using encryption and personal certificates. I also noticed improvements in NetMeeting's ability to establish data conferencing to clients using fake IP addresses via Network Address Translation.

As with the last version, NetMeeting supports voice-over-IP functionality via a Gateway server that bridges to the public switch telephone network, enabling users to dial a phone number directly from the NetMeeting interface. To help keep the interface uncluttered, users can toggle between a nifty cellular phone-like keypad and a picture-in-picture video display.

If you've been annoyed in the past by those irksome public Internet Locator Servers (ILS), you'll like the fact that they are now hidden from the end user, instead of being integrated with the interface as they were in the last version. ILS servers, now called Directory Servers, are mostly frequented by Web surfers looking for sex chats and don't belong in a corporate setting.

An updated version of the NetMeeting Software Development Kit and resource kit for administrators and developers is available from the NetMeeting download page on the Microsoft Web site. These tools are invaluable, particularly when your organisation needs to deploy specific parts of the application. A simple wizard easily takes you through a process of selecting which functions of NetMeeting you will need.

NetMeeting has something to offer everyone -- from telecommuters and customer service agents to technical support people and engineers. It is easy to install and maintain, it offers a great alternative to face-to-face meetings, and it's free. If you are already using Version 2.11, it's time to upgrade.

(Senior Analyst Jeff Senna (jeff_senna@infoworld.com) evaluates internet-based technologies.)The bottom line: very goodWindows NetMeeting 3.01Summary: Microsoft's latest update to its standards-based videoconferencing client offers a comprehensive suite of tools that make it easier than ever to collaborate, communicate, and hold virtual meetings over an IP network.

Business Case: Bringing the virtual office one step closer, NetMeeting enables employees to collaborate with co-workers online, resulting in productivity gains and cost savings by eliminating unnecessary travel.

Pros

+ Better integration with other applications and servers+ Encrypted data conferences+ Robust application sharing+ Improved user interfaceCons- Windows-only solution- Lacklustre video performanceCost: NetMeeting is available free, download from the Microsoft Web site.

Platforms: Windows 95/98, Windows NT, and Windows 2000; requires Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher

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