Survey: Web conferencing use grew sharply last year

The use of Web conferencing technologies increased sharply during the past year as companies looked for alternatives to travel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a recently completed survey of more than 500 U.S. corporations by Wainhouse Research Inc. in Waltham, Mass.

The results also show a similar rise in the use of other collaboration technologies such as audio- and videoconferencing during the period.

At the same time, more than 40 percent of the respondents in the survey said they're taking fewer trips, while the number of respondents who believe that access to conferencing, whether audio, Web or video, is personally "very important" to them rose from 44.3 percent before the attacks to 63.9 percent after.

The Wainhouse survey of small, medium and large companies was sponsored by Polycom Inc., a vendor of videoconferencing equipment, and was conducted between July 31 and Aug 9.

The results show a definite shift in business travel habits and an increase in the use of collaboration technologies post-Sept. 11, said Andy Nilssen, a Wainhouse analyst.

"One of the real significant findings was that in-person meetings dropped from over 54 percent to 45 percent after Sept. 11," Nilssen said. "The survey confirmed what we had been expecting as a result of travel and security concerns."

Even so, it would be wrong to assume that recent growth in the Web conferencing sector is solely the result of the Sept. 11 attacks, said David Thompson, a vice president at Webex Inc., one of the largest providers of Web conference services.

"What happened was that it accelerated a trend that was already there," Thompson said, adding that it also raised the overall awareness of the viability of video and Web collaboration technologies.

For the most part, he said, what's driving Web conferencing use is simply the better efficiencies and productivity that are enabled by the use of collaborative technologies.

General Motors Acceptance Corp. (GMAC), which is General Motors Corp.'s business financing operation, began using Web conferencing services from Placeware Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., two years ago.

Initially, the services were used mainly by GMAC's educational services group to train employees in different branches, said Doug Van Orden, GMAC's manager of training through technology, who's based in Detroit.

But the 125 seats licensed from Placeware are now used enterprisewide at GMAC, mainly for holding meetings between groups of people at different locations. Placeware charges between US$75 and $100 per seat per month -- higher for customers that want enhanced security features such as encryption.

Just saving on 125 trips would quickly pay for the cost of the service, Van Orden said.

"I can justify the purchase of those seats in less than a month," he said.

Network Intelligence Inc., a Walpole, Mass.-based maker of intrusion-detection equipment, has been using Webex's conferencing service for about three months to demonstrate its equipment to prospective clients.

Previously, such demonstrations involved carting the equipment to a customer site, setting it up and demonstrating it. Now that the whole presentation is available online, the company has been able to boost the number of sessions it has with customers from roughly 12 a week to more than 100 a week, said Matt Stevens, a vice president at the company.

"We can do a lot more in the same amount of time. That's been one of the big ROIs," he said.

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