Lillian Meyers considers Web-based conferencing the fax machine of the aughts.

“Twenty-five years ago, I wondered, ‘Do I really need a fax machine?’ Within a year, I wondered how I ever worked without it,” says Meyers, a Sonoma, Calif.-based financial planner who manages $20 million in assets. “This is just like that,” she says. Meyers says she uses Genesys conferencing to better serve her clients and grow her market base.

Like the trusty old fax, Web conferencing is quickly becoming an indispensable tool for small and medium-size businesses. Web conferencing allows groups of people to view PowerPoint training presentations in real-time, hold John Madden-style whiteboard brainstorming sessions, or mutually view documents on someone’s desktop -- whether in the same office or halfway around the world. Many Web conferencing products will support online chat functions, webcams, real-time user polls, live video transmission, and calendaring. Some, like Elluminate’s Live!, support distance learning.

Saves time and travel costs

According to Wainhouse Research, of Duxbury, Mass., 75 percent of small business respondents see the ability to use Web conferencing to reach more people and save time and travel costs -- especially in today’s post-9/11 climate -- as its major benefits. Also, 59 percent said it made meetings more productive. It’s no surprise that the Web conferencing market is white-hot, projected to grow by 24.4 percent to $2.9 billion by 2011, according to Frost & Sullivan, the global consulting firm.

Small businesses are seeing other savings, too. “We now have two sales reps,” notes Carol Andersen, chairman of Enterprise Print Management Solutions (EPMS), a Middleborough, Mass.-based printing software provider who uses Webex’s conferencing solutions. “We used to need five to travel and make sales calls.” Moreover, Andersen notes, EPMS can now offer training and customer support to overseas clients without any local presence.

How a Web conference works

Participants get invited via e-mail to a Web conference. It states the time and date of the conference, the Web conferencing provider’s site, a meeting code to gain entry, and a telephone number to call. While some Web conferencing providers can support telephone-free meetings, some do not. Some recommend using phones to augment the poor sound quality of some computers.

Just before the designated time, participants log in and call in.  Depending on the provider, you may need to download software to participate. Using an older computer or outdated software may stymie your participation. 

A change of your computer screen shows you are in the conference. A list of participants will appear, as will fields for chat and other features. When an image is displayed, all participants see the same thing. Since the host can hand control over to others, participants can take turns calling up documents to be viewed by the group.

When the meeting ends, you are still at your desk.

It’s tough to shop around

The biggest drawback of Web conferencing, it seems, is how to choose a provider. The field of providers -- including Webex, Genesys, Adobe, Citrix, Microsoft and others -- is a crowded one. And, while most offer product lines tailored to small businesses, comparing their functionality can be a daunting task. Pricing options make it still harder: providers charge per-minute, by the month, or through licensing agreements.

Claire Schooley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., suggests asking the following questions when shopping for a Web conferencing provider:

  • Is their product easy to use?
  • Is it easy for participants with different computers to use? Downloads are a deterrent, says Schooley, while products like Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional (which uses Flash) start immediately.
  • What customer support, if any, is offered? Is it needed?  (Hosted services like Webex offer full technical support; Citrix’s GotoMeeting is not hosted).
  • Does it offer basic services and scalability for small businesses? (Who needs bells and whistles for a 5-10 person meeting?)

Overall, Schooley recommends Webex, Microsoft Live Meeting, and Adobe, giving Citrix’s GotoMeeting an honorable mention for its simplicity. But ultimately, she says, “each organization has to figure what they need a Web conferencing application to do and choose accordingly.”