We've all been there - the dreaded conference call.
Unless the topic is riveting, such as a juicy scandal or the chance to make big bucks, half the participants are probably reading the newspaper, checking their e-mail or dozing off. Yet, in this age of high travel costs and ultra-busy schedules, conference calls are often the only way to go.
Fortunately, technology is bringing us new tools to make those conference sessions more palatable, more productive, and maybe even more entertaining.
One tool is video. Computer-based conferencing solutions generally allow you to use web cameras. Then, at least, you can embarrass the sleepers and e-mailers by asking them pointed questions at just the right moment.
Realizing that every kid joining the workforce is already a pro at instant messaging, Microsoft has pushed the use of Instant Messenger (IM) to boost business productivity. They offer an enterprise version that links up with other products such as Yahoo and AOL, and provides some security. This is handy if you're in a conference and want to have a private chat behind somebody's virtual back. "Push him harder on the price; he's desperate for a sale" kind of thing.
Of course, to enjoy all this you have to choose a conferencing platform or service.
Just as there used to be one kind of telephone, and it was black with a rotary dial, conference calling used to mean booking a reservation with the telephone company's operator for so many lines at such and such a time. Bell, Telus and the other established telcos still offer this service, but you'll probably set up the meetings yourself on demand. Both companies are resellers of WebEx, a product that allows the sharing of presentations and documents as well as audio-conferencing.
In the fiercely competitive world of telecommunications, there's always somebody out looking to take business away from the big telcos. One is Toronto-based Enunciate Conferencing, which claims on its website to be "North America's fastest-growing conferencing provider."
I'm on a board of directors that meets regularly via their system, and it works well. I asked the person who made the buying decision why she chose Enunciate, and she cited cost savings and the fact that it has a prompt that introduces each person as they join or leave the conference. She likes the fact that the passcodes are pre-established and are available 24/7.
But there's a downside to re-using participant passcodes. I just dialed Enunciate's toll-free number, even though there's no current meeting on, and it created one. At the very least I cost somebody a few pennies, but what if I was no longer an authorized user? Someone needs to manually de-activate passcodes to preserve security.
"Security is becoming an important issue in teleconferencing," says Rolf Larsen, CEO of Oslo, Norway-based NetConnect Systems AS.
He notes that his company's conferencing product can automatically generate new passcodes randomly for each session. The security risk in teleconferencing is more than hypothetical.
Hugo Idler, who runs NetConnect Conferencing Inc.'s North American operations from Toronto, describes a much-publicized situation where an interloper penetrated an audioconference meeting of a pharmaceutical trade association, and suggests that this simply would not happen with NetConnect.
Larsen says a major strength of NetConnect is its ability to work with customers to tailor specialized applications. "For example, we have a client that wants to automatically allocate costs to projects and clients, and we also seamlessly integrate into their calendar system. Nobody wants to have to use a different system to book their face-to-face meetings and their conference calls."
NetConnect's customer list includes giants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture and Nikon, as well as medium-sized firms such as Markham, Ont.-based Redline Communications Inc.
Redline's office administrator Lisa Down says she chose NetConnect because "it's easy to use.”
She particularly likes the web interface for managing conferences and the feature that displays an animation next to the person who is currently speaking. With staff and customer conferences involving up to 20 people, this makes it much easier to follow the conversation.
NetConnect has cast its lot with Microsoft, using an adapted version of the software giant's LiveMeeting product to provide the visual component of a session - things such as PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets. Companies can use this technology for an additional per-minute fee above audioconferencing costs, but Idler encourages them to purchase five named LiveMeeting (LM) seats for $402/month. "This means that they can have up to five simultaneous LM meetings with no time limit," he says. "The big advantage here is that the customer tends to use LM a lot more because they don't worry about per-minute charges."
Carrying the "all you can eat" philosophy to an extreme, California-based AI Telephone has started to offer unlimited flat-rate teleconferencing packages. For $49 US a month, you get "unlimited use of our bridge" on a 24/7 basis for up to 10 participants.
If you really want to get out the word, for $449 US a month you can conference together up to 2,500 phone- dangling participants and keep them there as long as you want. AI Telephone claims they have 6,000 ports, so hopefully there aren't more than a few megalomaniacs doing simultaneous speeches to the assembled troops.
This company also offers competitive toll-free service from Canada at four cents US/minute, or less. Many businesses already have VoIP (voice-over-Internet protocol) service, so they're not paying for long distance anyway.
Where will it all end up? The era of the "one ringy-dingy" conference operator is clearly over, except for a few users who demand that deluxe service. PCs are getting more powerful, telecom costs are moving to zero and people are accepting technology-enabled meetings.
A 2003 study by U.S. market research firm Wainhouse Research notes that "under the conditions many enterprises will encounter in their IP conferencing environments, software-conferencing servers can successfully bridge video calls."
So the experts envision a do-it-yourself world with all our communication happening from our PCs and Internet connection, effortlessly, reliably and seamlessly.
In the meantime, unless tinkering with technology is your core business, you're well advised to seek out one |of the conferencing professionals who are eager to save you from eating even more of those delicious airline snackpacks.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)