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History of Web Conferencing -- Multi-function Conferencing Comes of Age

By Lucy P. Roberts

While video conferencing and web conferencing are sometimes confused, the reality is that web conferencing is a completely different animal, with far more options available and a much greater range of functionality than video conferencing. Web conferencing offers not just the opportunity to chat and communicate via webcam so that you can see each person in your conferencing link, but to exchange documents, share applications, access shared desktops, use PowerPoint, whiteboards and other presentation features and even poll participants.

It all started with PLATO…

Web conferencing is “the total package.” Interestingly, the conceptual design of web conferencing began long before there was a World Wide Web or Internet structure in place. In the 1960’s, the University of Illinois developed a system known as PLATO for their Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL). It was a small, self-contained system supporting a single classroom of terminals connected to one mainframe computer. In 1972, PLATO was moved to a new system of mainframes that eventually supported over one thousand users at a time.

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In 1973, Talkomatic was developed by Doug Brown. This was essentially the first “instant messaging” program ever designed, with multiple windows displaying typed notes in real time for several users simultaneously. In 1974, Kim Mast developed Personal Notes, a new feature for PLATO that enabled private mail for users.

In 1975, Control Data Corporation set up its own PLATO system in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the first commercial use of multi-function conferencing system. Within ten years, PLATO was being used in over one hundred sites around the world, some with dedicated lines for full-time use.

In the late 1980’s, however, microcomputers were becoming more reasonably priced and the heyday of mainframe-based systems was over. Eventually the original Control Data systems were shut down because PLATO was no longer cost-effective. Control Data now has a few systems operating under the name CYBIS.

PLATO’s descendants

In the late 1970’s, Ray Ozzie and Tim Halvorsen worked at CERL. Years later they took some of the features of PLATO and greatly expanded on their capabilities when designing one of today’s most powerful web conferencing tools -- Lotus Notes, released in 1989.

Lotus Notes was the first commercially released product that really took off to offer user-created data-bases, document sharing, and remote location communication under one umbrella. It created a “relationship based” environment that took the corporation world by storm.

Other descendants of PLATO included DEC Notes, originally known as VAX, written by Len Kawell. It is still used today on DEC’s EASYnet and on Starlink, a universal web conferencing community. NetNotes is a client-server system designed to improve on the original DEC Notes, with WebNotes as an add-on for World Wide Web access.

True WEB conferencing

The distinction between true web conferencing and systems conferencing is difficult, however, to define. When the Web first became a contender as a valid means of collaborative conferencing with document sharing, etc, many companies took conferencing packages originally designed for intranet systems and redesigned them. The results weren’t always seamless. It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that true Web Conferencing software that was reliable was available.

PLATO and other main-frame based conferencing systems were based on a centralized structure, with all elements feeding into a central computer. This structure saw the development of several types of conferencing software that included Backtalk, Caucus, COW, Motet, Web Crossing, Podium, TALKaway and YAPP.

PlaceWare, arguably one of the most influential Web conferencing systems developed, had interesting origins in the 1990’s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where it began as a multi-user game called LambdaMOO. PlaceWare was one of the first companies to provide complete Web conferencing after the initial release of PlaceWare Auditorium in 1997. In April of 2003, Microsoft purchased PlaceWare, adding it to its newly formed Real-Time Collaborative Business Unit.

P2P shifts the focus of web conferencing

Another popular form of software was Groupware, essentially defined by Lotus Notes. The difference between the centralized structure of PLATO-based systems and Lotus is in the additional functions -- Lotus provided a host of other options like scheduling and document sharing. Groupware software is more complex than Centralized software and focus on work flow; that is, making sure documents, graphics and templates are where they need to be. Popular Groupware products developed in the 1990’s included InTandem, Livelink, Lotus Domino, Oracle InterOffice, TEAMate and WebShare.

As the price of home computers dropped, peer to peer (P2P) file sharing became more and more commonplace over the World Wide Web, although primarily on a user to user basis. That changed when members of Napster, then an illegal, informally organized group of college youth and other music-lovers, began sharing millions of music files among themselves. It began a revolution in the use of the Internet that changes the way Web conferencing was eventually perceived. P2P began to be seen as the way to host Web conferencing, rather than through a single server. .

Groove took this peer to peer concept and applied it to Web conferencing. The Groove technology, originally released in 2000, was upgraded to real performance power with Groove 2.1 in 2002 and was impressive. The advantages of peer to peer were immediately obvious -- once you loaded the software and were set up, you never had to pay a subscription or user fee for an offsite server to store any files, you will never lose all files in one central location, and you are set up and good to go for life (or until the next upgrade, at least).

Another company that recognized the need for quality Web conferencing software during these years was WiredRed Software, founded in 1998. In 2003, they released e/pop, a real-time Web Conferencing suite with comprehensive features for all aspects of industry -- it was the first installable web conferencing software with no significant install time.

NextPage also offers P2P web conferencing and document sharing capabilities developed out of the Napster movement. In fact, they use the example of Napster file sharing and downloads to illustrate to companies the advantages of using a peer to peer network over a centralized server.

What about UseNet?

In the 1980’s, Usenet software was developed with specific protocols to format and transmit messages. It also allowed messages to be passed from one news server to another, replicating around the world rather than being stored in any one location. It has become the standard for news readers on the Internet, with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer both having built-in news readers for UseNet. .

For some, web conferencing can be achieved simply by taking advantage of UseNet. Download free software to set up a news server, create a few local newsgroups on it, and have your users access your server with their Web browsers to create your conferencing site.

Most companies, of course, prefer to have a more professional package than that, and ease of use and security are concerns that are addressed better by companies who have specifically developed company or enterprise Web Conferencing solutions. A good web conferencing package today contains voice over IP (VoIP), co-browsing and application sharing at the minimum, with add-ons and other features if needed, including polling, event management, PowerPoint presentation, playback, recording and live annotation and markup.

Easynet, founded in 1994, is a broadband networking company based in Europe providing primarily European businesses with Web conferencing capabilities. This infrastructure based provider provides unbundled loop access to companies in some countries as a part of a “leased line” program for conferencing.

VoIP is making noise

The latest frontier in Web conferencing is the practicality of using IP based voice communications on a regular basis with Web conferencing. While Web conferencing is considered desirable for document exchange, text messaging and whiteboards and many other functions, many people still think VoIP technology has poor quality overall, especially with so many people still using dial-up connections. .

Actually, there are several contenders in the marketplace who have produced excellent quality VoIP offerings in their Web conferencing packages, including Voxwire, Orbitalk, RoomTalk, and VoiceCafe.

The future of web conferencing

One of the last stumbling blocks for web conferencing has been the incompatibility between Macs and PC’s. With the heavy preference for Macs by those in graphics heavy industries such as architecture, advertising and publishing, it has always been difficult to share documents and set up effective Web conferencing if the clients are PC-based. .

Session from WaveThree was released in 2003 to address this problem and seems to have actually overcome this seemingly insurmountable problem -- one of the first really effective systems for Mac/PC collaboration over the Internet. Using a bandwidth of 128 KBPS or above, Session provides videoconferencing, desktop sharing, document sharing, whiteboards and live annotations on photos and/or documents. More Web conferencing platforms of this type will no doubt be on the horizon.

As Web conferencing becomes more and more common, new developments will inevitably arise, including, perhaps, dedicated lines that are constantly open, improved, secure peer-to-peer access and more Mac/PC web conferencing options. With so many players on the field, it is likely that there will be a variety of divergent developments over the next few years.

This article on the "The History of Web Conferencing" reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2004-2005 Evaluseek Publishing.

About the Author
Lucy P. Roberts is a successful freelance writer providing practical information and advice for businesses about everything related to web conferencing software and web based meetings. Her numerous articles include tips for saving both time and money; product reviews and reports; and other valuable insights for persons searching the Internet for information about how web conferencing works and related topics.

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