It’s a rare day when I praise Microsoft. I do so today for a technology they’ve had around for many years but I haven’t really gotten around to trying until recently. And that is its NetMeeting software.
Using NetMeeting I can have a meeting over the Internet in real time. (I hesitate to call them virtual meetings because they are real meetings, just not one done in person.) Such meetings are I suspect greatly facilitated by also having a separate voice conferencing system. We have one of those where I work. Since the teams I am on are geographically disbursed almost all our meetings are done over the voice conferencing system. Hitherto our notion of a “virtual” meeting was having someone take notes and post them to the web periodically. We’d refresh the page periodically to see if we agreed with what was said.
I don’t know why we’ve avoided virtual meeting software. But we’re not alone. Even Microsoft seems to downplay its own NetMeeting software. On Windows XP it’s no longer even a program you can select off the Start button. It’s still there but you have to hunt for it. Look for a program called conf.exe under your Program Files folder in a subfolder called NetMeeting.
The software is fairly easy to use but not foolproof. Even an experienced computer type like myself was a bit puzzled at first. It offers a wizard that lets you identify yourself and asks you what kind of equipment you have. It wants to attach you to a directory server so others can find you. And there’s the rub. The default Microsoft directory server doesn’t really want you so you’ll probably get a timeout after 30 seconds or so. You could find another directory server and put your contact information there, but most people have no idea what a directory server is in the first place or how to hook up to it. Using a directory server is too complicated for most people to learn or even bother with.
But here’s the thing: you don’t need a stinking directory server. What you do need to know to host a meeting is your Internet protocol (IP) address. Microsoft does not make this easy to find. There are a couple ways to do it but the easiest thing (since many of us hide behind routers) is simply to go to a web site that will tell you what your IP is. I use whatismyip.com. Assuming that your IP is static (and even from home as long as you have a cable modem or DSL your IP is probably static for at least a couple days) just send an email to the participants with the IP and the time of the meeting. Make sure you include your time zone– this is the Internet after all. If they are neophytes also provide some basic instructions on how to find and invoke NetMeeting. The first time through expect 15 minutes or so of futzing using a separate voice system before everyone understands the basics.
I suspect the reason NetMeeting is not used more is that most people don’t have microphones connected to their computer. NetMeeting comes with a shared chat window participants can use but using it is not nearly as productive as using voice. The good news: microphones for PCs are cheap. The bad news: if your participants are not particularly technology savvy it will probably take a lot of nagging to get them to buy a microphone. But while they are at the computer store they should think about buying a web cam too. Why? Because you can also show yourself to other meeting participants this way.
To start the meeting someone has to host it, so they simply select the Host Meeting option from the Call menu. Give the meeting a name and a password (which participants will need to know about before the meeting). Participants have to initiate a New Call and will likely type in the IP that you provided. The host will hear a ringing sound and will be asked if they want to accept their call. When you do they join the meeting. A chat window and whiteboard will come up by default sometime after your first participant joins the meeting. You can also do file transfers and share out programs with the software.
For four afternoons and four hours a day this week my geographically disbursed team did our planning for next year with NetMeeting. Before we would have flown across country to meet. A meeting like this could well have cost the government $10,000. With money tight my boss asked us to try to do it electronically. I had tried NetMeeting before with a coworker or two. But would it scale to a larger meeting?
And the answer was yes it did. We did not have web cams available. And as I said we had a separate voice conferencing system in place that we used. And we all had broadband connections. Participants included four of us at our desks in Reston, and men in Anchorage, Helena and Portland, Oregon. Others joined in the meeting on invitation to discuss particular topics from other points across the United States. My man in Anchorage works from home and just installed a DSL line. I was worried whether it would be fast enough. It wasn’t a problem.
For most of the meeting I shared out a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and we used that to keep our complex notes organized. I typed what I was hearing into my laptop computer. I wondered how long it would take for screens to refresh across the country. I was dancing all over the keyboard and dragging and dropping things right and left. Participants reported almost zero latency. Somehow all those pixels kept redrawing flawlessly and in real time to multiple machines across the country. Now that is amazing and why I thought this software is truly cool.
Occasionally I let someone else operate my shared application. That’s when it got weird because others seemed to be taking over my computer. When done they could transfer control back to me. I didn’t think we’d use the chat window but I was wrong. Participants quickly started posting relevant notes and URLs in the chat window on the topic of the moment. Even the whiteboard was used, but mostly as a place for people to doodle when their attention lagged.
There are other solutions out there that are fancier than NetMeeting. The obvious one is WebEx, which is really a hosted solution and a pretty expensive one. It’s a better choice for many Internet meetings because it is not wrapped around Windows. It also allows you to reserve ports and send out invitations. NetMeeting however is free, providing you have Windows installed. But even NetMeeting supports some other operating systems. For example, there is a NetMeeting client for Linux.
NetMeeting needs an easier and less geeky way for people to find each other. Its way better than mere chat and it really allows you to get real work done efficiently. It was not quite as efficient as if we had all been in person. But we didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to see each other either.
I don’t know how well it would have worked without our voice conferencing system. Doing everything in chat mode would probably be very inefficient. Using the Internet to carry voices would probably give reduced and choppy sound quality. But with Windows having won the desktop war it’s nice to know a powerful tool like this is nearly universally available. It’s a shame we don’t use tools like this more often.