Web conference

Web conferenceMicrosoft might now be in the Web conferencing business as a service provider, but the company is a far cry from offering the technology as part of its strategy to give corporations a comprehensive and integrated portfolio of enterprise collaboration software.

Microsoft's Live Meeting, which the company introduced last week, is a re-branding of the former PlaceWare hosted Web conferencing service that Microsoft acquired earlier this year for $200 million. Microsoft says it has added 30 features highlighted by support for a native Windows client that runs on Windows 98 and above. Also new is integration with Outlook to schedule meetings and support for clustering and load balancing.

In the next six months, Microsoft plans to integrate the service with Windows Messenger, its instant-messaging client, and in the next 12 months with Live Communications Server, its instant-messaging and presence server set to ship next month along with Office 2003.

But what's missing is server software that corporations can run within their firewalls as part Microsoft's lineup of server and desktop collaboration software. The company's collaboration strategy revolves around Windows and the tactically renamed Office System of products that include instant messaging and conferencing, and collaboration software such as Exchange, Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server.

"Microsoft's strategy is to sell server software," says Joe Noel, who follows the Web conferencing market as an analyst for Pacific Growth Equities. "It is a software company, not a services company."

The PlaceWare technology is not Windows-based, and so Microsoft will have to transform the software for its platform. PlaceWare includes software for deployment on corporate networks called On-Site Solution, APIs and patented security protocols.

"We have no timetable to bring on premise-based software, but the vision is to have a server and a service," says Jennifer Callison, director of product management for Live Meeting. "There is work to be done on things like the tools to administer and monitor Live Meeting as a server."

That work will have to get done because Microsoft's strategy is to bring all its enterprise collaboration software together into an integrated unit: Windows, Office, Exchange, SharePoint Portal Server, Live Communications Server and Live Meeting.

The strategy is focused on the concept of contextual collaboration, which means collaborative features are a built-in component of an application, and users don't have to leave that application and open another to do such things as Web conferencing. For example, a user can start a conferencing session from a Word interface to collaborate on a document with other users.

Microsoft rival IBM/Lotus is building a similar platform using its WebSphere, Domino, instant-messaging and QuickPlace technologies. IBM offers a hosted and enterprise version of the conferencing software, and the company will release this month contextual collaboration features in Notes 6.5 client, which includes integrated instant-messaging features from its Instant Messaging and Conferencing server.

Microsoft also will compete with conferencing vendors such as Centra, Raindance and WebEx, which welcome the competition but chide Microsoft for an incomplete offering.

"Microsoft has done two significant things," says Andy Nilssen, an analyst with Wainhouse Research. "The first is branding. They have moved PlaceWare under Office and are clearly showing that integration with Office will happen. The second is a real native Windows client that PlaceWare had been working on."

Now he says Microsoft faces a set of challenges, including integrating Web conferencing into its product portfolio.

"The Fortune 5000 probably want conferencing inside the firewall for control. The same is true for the legal and healthcare industries," Nilssen says.

He says Microsoft also faces the challenge of unseating the browser as the client of choice for Web conferencing. "Everyone has a browser, and the browser has made Web conferencing a success. Now Microsoft is saying you should use a Windows client," he says.

Live Meeting also supports a browser client, but it will not have as rich a feature set as the native client. Live Meeting is Microsoft's second attempt at serious corporate Web conferencing software, the first being the release of Exchange Conferencing Server two years ago.

That product never really gained a foothold and is no longer being developed because the focus has switched to the PlaceWare technology.

Pricing for the Live Meeting service begins at $75 per user, per month, or 35 cents per minute.

Copyright Network World Inc. Sep 22, 2003
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