Want a low-cost, high-tech solution to dealing with long-distance clients? Take a tour of WebEx, an online meeting site used by IT heavyweights like Oracle, IBM, Dell, and Compaq.
WebEx’s primary business is allowing businesses to integrate interactive meetings into their own Web sites—at a cost of a $3,000 set-up fee, plus a monthly $100 fee. For small to midsize companies, however, WebEx offers a host of free and pay-per-use services, which start at 20 cents per participant per minute.
WebEx’s free services allow you to:
- Host online meetings with four participants.
- Share a virtual whiteboard during the meeting.
- Send text chat to participants.
- Share documents and presentations online in real time.
- Set up a virtual office space, complete with a message center.
- List your business in WebEx’s Business Directory.
Hosting a virtual meeting
All you need to do is register with WebEx, download a simple browser plug-in, and you’re ready to host your first meeting.
It isn’t necessary to have a DSL or T1 to use WebEx. The site recommends a 56K modem, but according to a WebEx salesperson, it can be used with connections as slow as 24K. WebEx’s servers will make up somewhat for differences in access speed.
I tested the site on a DSL line and found it loaded presentations seamlessly. The meeting interface was divided into three intuitive sections.
The largest is the presentation area, which can either run a presentation or act as a whiteboard. The right side includes a menu for the host and is divided into a space that lists the meeting’s participants and a box for chat. It also includes a button that allows participants to “raise a hand,” which only the host can see.
Free meetings are limited to four participants; with a paid subscription, you can have as many participants as you want. A WebEx representative said some companies even host 100-person online seminars using the site.
In a free meeting, you can also show presentations and share any type of document with your viewers, regardless of whether their PC has the application. With a paid subscription, attendees can edit, save, and print these documents in real time.
In addition, you can send text chats to meeting attendees and poll participants. The free service also offers a limited amount of desktop control and sharing and other features available with a subscription.
For an additional fee, WebEx also offers teleconference and video conference features. Each presentation is given a number that participants can call for the teleconference. It also supports voice over IP.
If you’re interested in video conferences, WebEx supports H.323 live video.
A virtual office
Another feature offered by WebEx is a virtual office, which contains the usual online features—a calendar, e-mail, a place to describe your business or even post a picture. The site also provides you with a central location to upload documents. Your clients can then visit your office to read and edit the documents.
WebEx also includes a business directory where you can list your business. Among the directory’s categories are:
- Computer: Hardware
- Computer: Software
- Computer: User Interface Design
- Computer: Internet
- Construction and Engineer: Contractor
- Business Services: Consultants
What about security and service?
Clearly, if you’re sharing your desktop online as well as discussing proprietary information, security is a top concern.
WebEx allows you to password protect all your meetings, and the host has the capability of “kicking out” any participant—invited or not. WebEx also supports SSL and VPN.
What about dependability? With almost 1,000 companies of all sizes using its service, WebEx reports it has had no trouble handling the volume. The company, which went public in June, currently has nine servers throughout the country, as well as servers in international locations.
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