Let's Work Together

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Around the same time, two industry analysts, Andrew Davis (who later founded Wainhouse Research) and Christine Perey, provided the videoconferencing industry with interesting research that I had the opportunity to work on. The question, posed to businesspeople and consumers, asked which of the three tools required for collaborative computing—video, audio, and data collaboration/document sharing—would they prioritize if bandwidth were an issue. The results, which chose real-time data collaboration far and away as the most important, with audio as second and video as a distant third, created a bit of a buzz in a video-centric industry. The results appear to hold true even today, as collaborative computing users will sacrifice in-band audio (i.e., VoIP) for a landline or mobile call if bandwidth is just barely adequate for data sharing. Even if there is plenty of bandwidth for audio, video, and data collaboration, users are less likely to turn on their video cameras except to show something that can’t be shown with other available collaborative tools.

DataBeam wasn’t finished innovating, though. Under the leadership of co-founder Neil Starkey (who headed the ITU’s International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium, which standardized T.120 for use in videoconferencing environments), the company had a much bigger goal: Now that the standard was established, DataBeam wanted to separate T.120 from reliance on videoconferencing and instead focus on the emerging world of the internet. In late 1996, the company made T.120-based data collaboration possible over the internet, saying in a press release that "anyone using an HTML browser can conference over the internet or corporate intranet" with the release of its neT.120 Conference Server.

Timing on the release of Conference Server proved beneficial, as the H.323 packet-based videoconferencing standard was also coming into play, with better codecs that are still in use today (Sorenson Spark, for instance, is used in Flash video). Companies such as White Pine, which made the CUSeeMe internet-based consumer videoconferencing system, adopted H.323 and T.120 at the same time with the intent of seamlessly integrating document collaboration and video chat.

Once again, the limiting factor was bandwidth, although not the same bandwidth issues faced by the old videoconferencing systems. T.120 worked great for the enterprise customer, but it also created a problem for the average road warrior, since broadband connectivity on the road or in home offices was limited, to say the least. Even if one did have broadband at home, the corporate internet pipes in those days were also limited and were often clogged with non-real-time messaging or HTML traffic. So those road warriors or telecommuters who wanted to use application sharing or document collaboration, even for something as simple as a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, were severely limited in their ability to participate if they were off the corporate intranet. And companies weren’t so keen to host their documents on an external server to accommodate those outside the corporate firewall, fearing additional bandwidth drains on the corporate internet pipes, as well as security breaches when critical documents were hosted by a third-party service provider.

So why spend all this time catching up on the history of collaborative computing from the 20th century? The simple answer is context; the broader answer is that challenges—and opportunities—still remain for ubiquitous collaborative computing.

Even some of the big players still remain, as varied as folks such as Craig Malloy and Frik Strecker. Malloy started ViaVideo to focus on personal videoconferencing, worked with Polycom/PictureTel after PictureTel and ViaVideo were acquired by Polycom, and has now gone on to start LifeSize, focusing on high-definition videoconferencing. Strecker was with White Pine, makers of CUSeeMe, then he went to First Virtual Corp. and now heads a company called GatherWorks. There are many others, but the point is this: What happened in 1993–1996 still has a huge impact on how we approach today’s collaborative computing issues, as many of today’s products are incremental gains on yesterday’s innovations.

Desktop Presentation Tools
At the top of the collaborative toolbox sits what are often viewed as the only collaborative tools available. These tools, dubbed presentation or webcasting tools, are designed to allow viewers to log in and view a live presentation, typically, but not limited to, a PowerPoint presentation.

Even those that allow full-desktop presentation mode, such as GoToMeeting, are primarily designed to showcase the presenter, with collaboration limited to asking a question by phone or by "raising a hand" in a rudimentary chat window.

Variations on this tool abound, with software-as-a-service models providing recording of the event for playback in an on-demand fashion, complete with audio, in much the same way that PowerPoint with self-contained audio was popular a few years back. Brainshark, a Boston-based company, offers one such example of this type of tool, allowing presenters to record live, but also to go back and change out single slides (and the audio that accompanies them) to keep an on-demand presentation fresh or timely.

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