As a somewhat jaded Generation Xer, I have to admit that the Internet seldom impresses me.

After all, I was raised on the Jetsons. Every time a new high-tech innovation is announced, my reaction tends to be, “Oh yeah? Big deal! Where’s my flying car?”

Recently I “test drove” WebEx, an online meeting site that allows you to show presentations and share documents in real time. While it’s no flying car, WebEx is impressive.

WebEx will be useful if you:

  • Perform regional, national, or international sales via the Internet.
  • Look for ways to do live tech support, a la PC Anywhere, without investing in your own infrastructure.
  • Hold frequent teleconferences or video conferences and need a way to share documents or a whiteboard in real time.
  • Occasionally hold small meetings and want a free meeting service.

You make me promises, promises
Why do I like WebEx? It lives up to its marketing hype.

The Web site is intuitive and simple. I simply installed the plug-in and, once the meeting started, found it worked smoothly and quickly on a DSL line.

WebEx salesperson Chris Campisi demonstrated WebEx for me. Since I didn’t want any special treatment, I neglected to inform Campisi that I was writing an article for more than half-a-million IT professionals.

Campisi said WebEx requires 56 K, but people with slower connections can use it without affecting the other viewers. WebEx’s servers will make up, somewhat, for differences in access speed, he added.

The presentation appeared on my desktop before Campisi had even finished speaking.

WebEx’s meeting interface is divided into three spaces. The largest is the presentation area, which can either run a presentation or act as a whiteboard for members to scribble out ideas. 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.

WebEx allows you to view a presentation, share a virtual whiteboard, or go on an Internet tour.

Chats can be sent to everyone in the meeting or privately, which allows the presenter to answer questions on the side. The host can also poll members for their opinions.

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, although I found the performance jumpy and edgy.

Share applications through your browser
So what makes WebEx a big deal? It allows you to share applications and desktops through your browser.

You can open any application and allow participants to make changes to it, regardless of whether the application is a simple Word document or proprietary software. The host controls the participant’s access to these documents and can give you the ability to save, print, annotate, and copy documents or simply restrict you to viewing them.

You can even interact with a participant’s desktop, if they give you permission. I even sent myself an e-mail from Campisi’s computer, a move that unsettled both of us. This feature makes WebEx particularly useful if you’ll be performing tech support for remote customers.

What about security and service?
Clearly, if you’re sharing your desktop online as well as discussing proprietary information, security is a top concern. I asked Campisi about it.

He responded that you can password protect all your meetings, and the host has the capability of “kicking out” any participant—invited or not. Further, he said WebEx supports SSL and VPN.

The site also boasts a dependability rate of above 95 percent—about the equivalent of a cell phone, Campisi said.

The company currently has nine servers throughout the country, as well as servers in international locations. Campisi said they plan to expand to 20 server locations by the end of the year.

Who uses WebEx?
WebEx boasts more than 650 customers of all sizes, including Oracle, IBM, Dell, Compaq, and Toshiba. Oracle, which has invested in WebEx, uses the site for sales, training, and tech support.

If you’re paying for the service, WebEx does not limit participants. Campisi said some larger companies hold large online seminars with WebEx, but the average meeting involves five to six members and lasts approximately an hour.

WebEx offers a corporate package and a pay-per-use service. With the “corporate solution” you pay WebEx a $3,000 set-up fee, which includes a meeting space set up with your company’s branding so it appears to be part of your site. Then, you pay a monthly licensing fee of $100 per license for unlimited use.

The license number simply sets the number of people who can use the service at one time. WebEx charges a per-person amount if you go over your limit.

What you can get for free
If that sounds too rich for your company, WebEx offers a per-use rate, which starts at 20 cents per participant per minute, and a more limited, but still useful, free service. This gratis service includes:

  • Presentation and document sharing
  • Four participants
  • Text chat
  • Polling
  • Limited desktop control and sharing, application control and sharing, and video

In addition, WebEx offers a free “office space” for users where you can create an address book, share documents, and receive messages.

In short, it’s a great place to meet … pending, of course, a space café via my own flying car.
Found a site or product that you think measures up to its marketing hype? Share it with us via e-mail or post your comments below.