Leery of hopping on a plane for meetings? Web conferencing may let you hop online instead. Blending audio, video, and document-sharing technology, Web conferencing creates virtual meeting rooms where people "gather" at a password-protected Web site. There, they can chat in conference calls or use real-time text messages. They can mark up a shared document as if it were a blackboard and even watch live software demos or video clips.
For those trying to cut costs, the price is attractive: about $100 per month per user. "Travel got to be quite expensive," says Robert W. Bean, CEO of Marlborough (Mass.) software developer CADKEY Corp. Now, in a virtual meeting room hosted by WebEx Communications Inc. in San Jose, Calif., Bean pores over the details of his new computer-aided design software with his sales manager in Caldogno, Italy; his customer in Loudon, Tenn.; and his distributor in Coventry, England. CADKEY's cost: $10,000 a year, plus a onetime licensing fee of $15,000 so that its 100 dealers can also use the service. Annual savings come to $50,000--not bad for a company with 45 employees and revenues of $7.5 million.
James W. Weaver, CEO of Tracker Management Systems Inc., in Cleveland, says Web conferencing helps with sales, too. "I just did a remote product demo to a company in Holland," says Weaver, whose 11-person company develops emergency-dispatching software used by tow-truck operators. He thinks the system can add $50,000 to his bottom line.
ONE PROGRAM SERVES ALL. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Web conferencing is its simplicity. You just set up an account and download a few small software files. Those attending don't need the same hardware or software. Want to share a technical drawing made with proprietary software? Some PowerPoint slides? No problem. Every participant can see what's on anyone else's screen. Want to see faces? Even the cheapest plug-in video camera will work. The quality is poor, though, so don't count on reading facial expressions or body language.
If you're interested, you can sample Web conferencing. WebEx Communications Inc. (www.webex.com) and PlaceWare (www.placeware.com), two of the more established services among dozens now available, offer free trials. But be aware you'll need a Web connection of at least 56 kilobits per second. Without broadband, some of the more dazzling features--live video feeds and shared software applications--are agonizingly slow. Still, at 56K you can run a PowerPoint presentation with real-time text chat or view the same document at the same time--and skip the small talk, too. By Kevin Ferguson