Business Trips a Thing of the Past?

Peer Stemmler
Peer Stemmler

Mr. Stemmler, how does a web conference actually work?

Stemmler: The only thing users need in order to participate is a computer with an Internet connection and a telephone. By using a webcam, the conference can be extended to include a video link. Participants can get to the virtual conference room with just a few mouse clicks. After receiving an invitation they need to register on a special website and download a client the first time they use the system. The service is then ready for immediate use. Any participant application, be it a document, graphic or presentation, can be jointly viewed and changed by all.

The host coordinates the proceedings, allocates special functions to individual participants or transfers control to them. Apart from speaking on the telephone, the participants of the online meeting are also able to communicate by text chat or take part in surveys simply by clicking a mouse. WebEX also allows for conferences to be recorded. Laborious writing of minutes is thus a thing of the past. Instead, the online session can be recorded and then dispatched to other colleagues via e-mail.

Can contributions be fed into the system and passed on even after completion of a conference?

Stemmler: In theory, yes. But it doesn’t happen very often, considering the 50,000 conferences that take place on the MediaTone network on a daily basis worldwide. When the meeting is recorded for archiving it is usually the ‘raw’, unedited recording that is used.

How much money can be saved on business trips by an international company that regularly uses web conferencing?

Stemmler: Adidas, for instance, utilizes a web conference solution in order to improve coordination between its software developers in Germany, China and the USA. Although occasional face-to-face meetings between the project participants have been inevitable, utilizing the Meeting Center conference solution has resulted in six-figure savings for the entire two-year project.

What is special about WebEX web conferences?

Stemmler: The web conference services can be hired. Customers don’t need to invest in additional hardware and software, something that distinguishes this system from server-based in-house solutions and fixed video conferencing solutions. Furthermore, there is no administration involved on the user side, as WebEX web conference services are platform-independent and work on any PC. They can be run without any problem using Windows, Mac OS and Solaris. Management input and expenses should certainly not be underestimated when using server-based solutions and video conferencing systems. If necessary, WebEX can accommodate several thousand participants, for instance during large online events or web-based training sessions.

We have our own communications infrastructure for web conferences, the MediaTone Network, a redundant, global network for real-time communication via the Internet. All the information and content of a web-based meeting is saved here, instead of on a server. Data does not need to be uploaded but instead is available in real-time. This means that users are not affected by Internet-specific performance problems. With most other online meeting systems, data and documents used jointly are stored on a server that is accessed by users via the Internet. The greater the number of users accessing the server, however, the slower the virtual meeting will become. That is a real problem.

According to the website “Survey of online meeting tools”, your “Meeting Center” product did not get any points for user-friendliness and speed when setting up a meeting – are you already working on an improvement?

Stemmler: Of course we are constantly working on improvements to the meeting setup. Incidentally it is also possible to start meetings directly from Outlook, Lotus Notes, or SAP Enterprise Portal, for example. Regardless of this, bloggers think this so-called “vendor-independent” test page should be regarded with skepticism, because the operator received a commission from the test winner, as several blogs report. In addition, it does not cover all web conference manufacturers.

How secure are web conferences?

Stemmler: The data needed for an online meeting does not need to be uploaded onto a server first. Instead, all data is exchanged between the participants’ PCs in real time. That means there is no information stored somewhere on the Internet that could be cracked by hackers. Furthermore, all data is encrypted with 128 bit and SSL. We hold WebTrust certification of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA). In order to gain WebTrust certification, web conference solutions must comply with certain guidelines on transferring data via the Internet and using e-commerce solutions.

In the same web conference test, one complaint was that the user account is not deactivated after the password is entered incorrectly three times. It seems there is no end-to-end encryption either: do you want to improve this?

Stemmler: In the current versions of our solutions, a further entry is not possible after the password has been entered incorrectly three times. The administrator on the customer side can re-activate the account. Alternatively, it is possible to set a timeout.

Do you think the conference moderator should have control over which participants listen in to a conference carefully – and which less so?

Stemmler: We leave that to the customer. Ideally, a web conference should be interesting enough that no-one falls asleep – for example through interaction options. If attentiveness tests are requirements, we offer support for this.

Are web conferences soon going to be a standard in the world of business?

Stemmler: For many companies they are already indispensable. According to a survey, one in seven German companies already utilizes Web conferencing.

…On the other hand, 85 percent still work without it

Stemmler: So there’s a huge potential for growth!

What situations will still necessitate a face-to-face meeting in future?

Stemmler: Successful international cooperation cannot be achieved with a tool alone, it must not be allowed to deteriorate into a virtual partnership. Personal and cultural exchange is often the decisive factor in the success of a business relationship, and it is important that business partners get to know each other on a personal level, so that they can build up trust. Subsequently, collaboration can largely take place over the internet.

In your opinion, what are the market perspectives for web conferencing over the next 10 years?

Stemmler: I have to agree with the independent market research institutes. Gartner believes web conferencing has a rosy future in the mainstream of corporate communication. Forrester goes even further and predicts that web conferences will become as commonplace for communication as email or the telephone.

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