Web Conferencing

Web Conferencing is essentially Video Conferencing via internet. It is commonly used to conduct live meetings, training, or presentations. Each participant of a web conference is usually at his or her own computer and is connected to the other participant(s) via the internet.

Unlike video conferencing though, it has many more capabilities than just chatting and communicating through webcam. Depending on the video conferencing application, you can "see each person in your conferencing link, exchange documents, share applications, access shared desktops, use PowerPoint, whiteboards, presentation features, and even poll participants (Roberts)."

History - How it Started & How it was Reinvented
Though web conferencing seems like a relatively new application, the concept was actually developed during the 1960's. According to Lucy Roberts, a system known as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) was actually developed by the University of Illinois for their research laboratory. It was their own personal system for their classroom. It consisted of a a few "terminals connected to one mainframe computer (Roberts)." Later in 1972, they were able to upgrade to a new system that was able to connect more than one thousand users at a time.

Building upon this idea, Doug Brown developed the a new program in 1973, the Talkomatic. "This was essentially the first instant messaging program ever designed, with multiple windows displaying typed notes in real time for several users simultaneously (Roberts)."

The popularity of the PLATO system grew quickly. The first commercial use of this system was adopted by Control Data Corporation in 1975. "Within ten years, PLATO was being used in over one hundred sites around the world, some with dedicated lines for full-time use (Roberts)." However, when microcomputers became more reasonably priced, the end of PLATO quickly followed. It wasn't as cost-effective to fun it as a main-frame system.

PLATO may have become obsolete, but that does not mean the idea died out. Ray Ozzie and Tim Halvorsen took some of the features of PLATO, expanded on it, and "designed one of today's most powerful web conferencing tools -- Lotus Notes, released in 1989 (Roberts). Lotus notes was the first commercial product, marketed towards corporations, that offered users to create their own databases, share it, and be where they wanted all in one application.

All of which that has been mentioned were systems based on mainframes, meaning they were computers connected to a main computer. As the price of personal computers continued to drop, P2P (Peer-to-Peer) sharing became more common. P2P sharing is sharing your personal files online such as music and pictures (ex. Napster). In 2000, the company Groove took this concept and combined it with web conferencing and created something that is more familiar today. Quite simply enough, this was the foundation for what we use today. More and more companies and developers built upon this idea adding their own improvements and personalizations to give us the numerous options we have today.

There are three main ways to achieve web conferencing:
1. A separate program can be downloaded and installed on each of the participants' computer.

2. A web-based application can be used where each participant will be able to access it by clicking on a link. Some can be password protected.

3. You can have a fusion of both. One participant can have a separate program that offers a link to a web-based application.
Example:  Digsby gives you the option of sending a link that leads you to the web-based application Tok Box.

There are two main types web conferences:
1. Webinar: it's a one-way type of conference where a speaker is talking to an audience of participants. It is usually up to the speaker to make it collaborative or not. This means there can be some interaction such as a question and answer session.

2. Online Workshops: they are web conferences that are complemented by Electronic Meeting Systems (EMS). These contain a lot of tools:  
  • Exchange Documents - Users can share documents
  • Share Applications - Users can share applications
  • Share Files - Users can share files.
  • Access Shared Desktops - Users can allow other users to access their computer database.
  • PowerPoint and other programs - Users can run PowerPoint and other programs for other users to see.
  • Whiteboards - Users can use this as a digital whiteboard.
    • Brainstorming
    • Drawing
    • Fun activities (Hangman or Pictionary)
  • Poll Participants - Users can poll each others. 
  • Etc.

Other Notes
Web conferencing is not just for business though. Many participants utilize this for fun. A site growing with popularity is Chat Roulette. It is a web-based application that allows participants to interact randomly with other users.

This technology is also being promoted with education. Many schools are utilizing webinars as an alternative to physically being in the classroom. Curt Bonk believes that "access to technology can improve teaching and learning."

Web Conferencing is becoming more mainstream each day. We will likely see more vast innovations and improvements for this vehicle of communication in the future.

B188 Support Site
Questia.com (article)
Web Conferencing Zone (Roberts)