Vendors pump up Web conferencing

Several leading Web conferencing vendors are rolling out new or revised products in response to what they see as the technology's evolution from ad hoc departmental use to strategic, enterprise application deployments.

This week, WebEx Communications unveiled a bundle of previously separate services that's designed to be more cost-effective and manageable than the individual offerings. Meanwhile, rivals Raindance Communications and Placeware are readying improvements to their software, such as enabling it to work better with other applications.

"Web conferencing is moving from a renegade technology where department managers take out their credit cards and sign up for services, to where IT managers are looking at the costs and saying, 'We have a decision to make here,'" says Andy Nilssen, an analyst with Wainhouse Research. "It's a formal decision now."

Experts say the focus is on making Web conferencing an everyday part of enterprise computing.

"The dream of Web conferencing vendors is to go from being the discussion forum after decisions are made to being a tool that helps make those decisions," says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC. "But the Web conferencing vendors are pushing their products as a single defined product, while IBM and [Microsoft] see it as part of a feature set. The effort from companies like WebEx, Placeware and Raindance is to defend their turf as a separate application for the enterprise."

End users say the developments show how the market is evolving.

"From a corporate standpoint, Web conferencing offers itself to almost every element of the company," says David Lukasik, senior vice president and chief learning officer for Professional Service, an engineering, consulting and testing firm in Orlando. "Conferencing is not just for training; we use it internally, externally, for events and even IT support."

Lukasik, whose company uses the new WebEx service bundle, says the industry still is evolving to meet corporate needs.

As for WebEx, its new Enterprise Edition offering bundles its four core Web conferencing services, giving companies a single account, single sign-on and billing features that detail usage by departments.

"One big issue we see is that corporations want to record chargebacks per department to control and track costs," says Praful Shah, vice president of strategic communications for WebEx.

The company also added My WebEx, a single-click feature to begin a meeting; personalized meeting rooms; and tighter integration with Microsoft Outlook on the desktop and with corporate directories for managing users.

In the coming month, Raindance will unveil its new offerings, code-named K2, which include software that will run on corporate networks and a set of APIs to integrate Web conferencing with assorted server and desktop applications.

"We realize that if we want to sell on an enterprise basis, we have to have more enterprise features," says CEO Paul Berberian. "Certain components of the system have to be behind a company's firewall so [the company] can have control."

Placeware plans the next major release of its software in the first half of this year with additions that will include more sophisticated administrative features, according to the company. Last fall, the company released its first software for deployment on corporate networks called PlaceWare On-Site Solution.

"In the new release we'll offer customized roles," says Jennifer Callison, senior director of product marketing. "That will provide a lot more flexibility to pool users and resources under definitions of how a company wants to be organized."

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