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Meeting Madness!

As more companies dive into web conferencing, one Valley company hopes to rule the virtual boardroom with a trendy little innovation

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: TechConnect, Spring 2008


For all the advantages web conferencing has shown over the traditional face-to-face boardroom meeting – easier collaboration among a distributed workforce, real-time document sharing direct from everyone’s computers, less wasted time spent gabbing and grabbing coffee – you could at least say this for the old-school model: nobody ever argued about the table.

Today, though, as more and more companies migrate their meetings from the conference room to individual desktops, one of the first decisions facing executives is what platform everyone should use to connect over. Should it be Cisco’s WebEx or Acrobat Connect? GoToMeeting or Live Meeting? Will participants need a plug-in or download? Can it run on Mac and PC?

The blogosphere is littered with strident opinions on which web conferencing system rules, most based on whichever technology the user’s company seems to have stumbled upon.

“There are literally close to 100 different companies in this market right now,” says Andy Nilssen, an analyst with the Massachusetts-based independent market research firm Wainhouse Research, who’s been studying the web conferencing industry for 6 years. According to Wainhouse, conferencing systems and software is now a $1.4 billion-a-year business, but still one without a clear leader.

“The whole thing started virally,” Nilssen explains, “kind of like instant messaging, where you had a lot of departments within large companies that just started using whatever system they preferred, without the IT department even knowing about it. As a result, they’ve ended up with pockets of users all using different systems.”

The IT guys are now waking up to this mess and evaluating the different services to determine which single solution is best for their company. “Not only to save money,” Nilssen says (most providers offer bare-bones solutions for free, but charge hosts for the more feature-rich programs), “but also to get everyone trained on the same tool.”

Right now, Microsoft’s Live Meeting and Cisco’s WebEx appear to be leading the pack, with IBM’s Lotus Sametime Unyte a “sleeping giant.” But Nilssen says an Arizona company named iLinc is fast making headway, thanks in no small part to a nifty little innovation built into the Java-based code.

iLinc’s killer feature is the “Green Meter” (see sidebar), an algorithm that measures a company’s estimated carbon savings by having its participants meet online instead of traveling by car or plane to a physical conference room. The IT crowd may snicker at the tacked-on trendiness of the tool (iLinc’s press release trumpets that its CEO came up with the idea after a lunch with Al Gore), but the Green Meter is turning into a deal-clincher with the decision-makers who matter most: the senior execs.

“For any company to implement web conferencing, you absolutely need to have buy-in from the top – which can be a stumbling block,” Nilssen says. “There are still those senior executives who say, ‘You absolutely have to come into my office if I’m going to talk to you.’ But this Green Meter is something that touches on an initiative a lot of companies now have, to do something pro-environment. And it seems to be helping iLinc.”

Indeed, one of the company’s biggest clients so far has been the State of Arizona, which, acting on Governor Janet Napolitano’s efficiency initiative, had been leaning toward Citrix’s popular GoToMeeting for its emerging web conferencing technology – until iLinc sold them on its green machine.

“The Governor made it a priority for agencies to find innovative ways of cost avoidance, and also do something on the green front,” says Chris Cummiskey, the state’s chief information officer. “So this [iLinc’s software] really fit the bill.”

Of course, using any web conferencing service would help the state’s 45,000 employees reduce physical trips to the capital by exactly the same measure. But only iLinc’s software spit out actual numbers.

“That helped us quantify the benefit from having a system where people didn’t have to drive downtown,” Cummiskey says. “And that was the calculation we were looking for. It made it more meaningful for the executive branch to deploy.”

For his part, iLinc’s marketing v.p. Mark Yeager recognizes the Green Meter as the service’s most unique selling point, and assures they’ve got a patent pending to keep the algorithm from showing up in Cisco’s and Microsoft’s code. But Yeager stresses there’s more to his service than simply the hyped-up calculator.

“We’ve also got a tool we call the ‘participation meter,’” he says, during an appropriately online conference demonstrating the technology, “that uses a point system to calculate whether someone’s paying attention or not. And it can show things like: Have they clicked on a screen recently? Have they answered a question? Have they got the iLinc screen up and active? And all of those composite into one big score that tells me if someone’s engaged in the presentation or not.”

This tool addresses another big-wig concern that’s been keeping companies out of web conferencing: mainly, if we let staff work at home, will they really be working, or just downloading and watching “Beowulf” on company time? Such boss-satisfying controls make the web conferencing window the next best thing to cubicle-cruising.

Of course, iLinc offers all the other standards of the most popular services: cross-platform capability, invisible Java implementation (nothing big to download and install), and lots of ways to share documents and collaborate.

Which is good, Nilssen says, as the novelty of the Green Meter can quickly wear off.

“What tends to happen is people pay attention to that thing for the first couple of months that they use the technology, and then they say, ‘Okay, we’re saving CO2 by not traveling,’ and then they never touch it again,” he says, with a laugh.

“But by then, they’re already sold on all the other benefits of web conferencing. They’ve seen they can involve people in decisions they never could before, they can pull together meetings faster and with less wasted time. And they realize the quality of the company’s decision-making has improved – no matter how much they’re helping the environment!”

”–

 
Art by Jim Nissen, Switch Studio

“There are literally close to 100 different companies in this market right now,” says analyst Andy Nilssen. "As a result, [companies] have ended up with pockets of users all using different systems.”

How green is your meeting?

“The Green Meter is something that we built into our product about a year ago,” says iLinc’s Mark Yeager. “And our goal was, ‘Let’s help people realize how much of an impact web conferencing can have on the environment.’”


So far, the feature has given iLinc its strongest competitive advantage over giants like Microsoft’s Live Meeting and Cisco’s WebEx, giving green-conscious CEO’s the metric they need to justify the transition from boardroom to desktop meetings.


How does it work? As participants log in to a meeting, the software records their IP addresses and determines their locations. It then calculates the distances between the people attending the meeting and the person holding it, and estimates how far everyone would have to drive to physically attend the meeting.


From there, it calculates the carbon emissions savings gained from holding the meeting online, taking into account the average CO2 emissions from various modes of travel. If the distance is particularly long – say, in a meeting between people in different countries – it assumes you’d be traveling by air (even discerning between private plane and commercial jet), and adds that amount to the mix.


Yeager is quick to admit that any web conferencing service could claim the same CO2 savings, but notes that no one else anticipated the benefits of churning out an actual number for meeting attendees to gloat over. The Green Meter even keeps a running tally for each subsequent conference, allowing any CEO to eventually feel as self-satisfied as Ed Begley, Jr.


“A lot of web conferencing providers talk about being green,” Yeager says, “but no one else has actually built anything into their technology that helps users discern exactly how much positive impact they’re having on the environment.”


Those few lines of proprietary code may, in the end, help iLinc’s founders see some serious green themselves.