More than just an audio and video conferencing tool

Microsoft provides NetMeeting 3.01 as a free tool that lets you communicate over a network with realtime voice and video technology, mark up or exchange graphics on an electronic whiteboard, transfer files, use a text-based chat program, share Windows-based programs with other users, and remotely connect to another computer.

When most people think of NetMeeting, they think of its audio and video capabilities, which often fall short of expectations in regard to transmission quality over a slow connection. However, NetMeeting offers many additional features that provide practical services to your organization. For example, NetMeeting can simplify your job through remote access and program-sharing capabilities without the associated cost of purchasing additional software. NetMeeting is a great tool for your Help desk or for employees in separate branch offices to use to collaborate on a project. A brief overview of NetMeeting will help you understand the software's features and illustrate how you can use NetMeeting on your LAN as a Help desk tool.

NetMeeting at the Help Desk
How often have you or members of your support staff tried to resolve end users' problems over the phone only to end up physically going to their system to solve the problem? Solving the problem in person is often more efficient than figuring out a solution over the phone because you don't have to spend as much time asking questions and attempting to walk the end user through the solution.

If you install NetMeeting at each workstation, you can use the software's Program Sharing feature to view on your system the same screen that end users are looking at on their systems. This feature lets you lock end users' keyboards and take over their systems, so you can remotely perform almost any action that you can perform in person. Thus, you save a lot of time that you can better spend resolving other problems.

NetMeeting's Help Desk Features
Before you install NetMeeting on your Help desk and end users' computers, you must decide which options to enable. The following features are the most useful NetMeeting options for a Help desk. You can find each of these features as options in NetMeeting's Tools menu. For a list of additional NetMeeting features, see the sidebar "Additional NetMeeting Features."

Chat. You can use the Chat feature, which is compliant with the T.120 standard, to exchange text messages with an end user during a troubleshooting session. (For more information about the T.120 standard, see the sidebar "The T.120 and H.323 Standards," page 84.) This function is also helpful for meetings that include multiple participants at separate machines within your organization (and for recording notes from such a meeting). To set up a Chat meeting, an end user configures his or her computer to be the host machine and decides who can participate in the group meeting. The Chat feature's Whisper option lets end users conduct a separate, private conversation during a group Chat meeting without interrupting the ongoing conference.

File Transfer. This feature lets you send a file in the background to the computer you're troubleshooting. In addition, end users can employ this feature during the meeting to send a file to one or all of a meeting's participants. NetMeeting gives each participant the option to accept or reject the file transfer. This feature is compliant with the T.127 standard.

Program Sharing. You can use the Program Sharing feature to run one or more programs on an end user's computer to resolve problems, and end users can use this feature to share programs with other meeting participants. This functionality provides a useful method for training multiple end users to use a particular software program. Only the person who wants to share the program needs to have it installed. That person can control access to the program so that he or she is the only person who has program control or can permit program control to other meeting participants. Program Sharing also lets you approve participants' requests to work in a program that you introduce: You can select one person at a time to work in the shared program.

An enhancement to the Program Sharing feature in NetMeeting 3.01 is that end users view the shared program window in a frame that participants can minimize on their desktops, thus enabling them to work on other programs. When users share more than one program, the software layers the programs on top of one another and collaborators use NetMeeting's shared program-window taskbar buttons to navigate program windows. The Program Sharing feature is compliant with the T.128 standard.

Whiteboard. This feature lets multiple users create and manipulate graphics information simultaneously. The whiteboard is object-oriented rather than pixel-oriented, so conference participants can manipulate the displayed graphics by clicking and dragging. To differentiate each participant's contributions, the software assigns different-colored pointers to each participant. The Whiteboard feature is compliant with the T.126 standard.

Remote Desktop Sharing. This feature, new to NetMeeting 3.01, lets you call a remote computer to access its shared applications and desktop (when the Remote Desktop Sharing service is running on the host computer). This feature lets you use a secure connection and password to access a remote computer in a branch office. You can also call your workplace computer from home and vice versa. The Remote Desktop Sharing feature is compliant with the T.120 standard.

Installing and Configuring NetMeeting
Microsoft includes NetMeeting 3.01 in Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0. You can also download this tool from NetMeeting 3.01 for Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 3 (SP3) or later requires a 90MHz Pentium processor or better, 24MB of RAM, and IE 4.01 or later. To use NetMeeting, you must have a 32-bit TCP/IP stack and install Winsock. NetMeeting doesn't operate properly over Serial Line Internet Protocol (SLIP) connections. To receive a quality connection for conference participants, NetMeeting works best over a LAN or with a fast Internet connection (i.e., 56KBps or faster) such as an ISDN, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), or T1 connection.

Store the installation program, nm30.exe, in a shared directory that all end users can access. After installing NetMeeting, you begin the configuration process by selecting NetMeeting from the Start menu's Programs menu.

During configuration, a dialog box asks whether you want to log on to a directory server and whether you want your name listed in the directory. Unless you have your own directory server, don't select these options. Doing so will make you available to anyone logged on to that public directory server. This setup can lead to numerous conference interruptions from curious Internet users. Rather than connect to a public directory server, use the IP address or computer name of the PC you'll connect to on your LAN.

Next, the setup program asks you to select your connection speed. You'll be using NetMeeting as a Help desk tool on your LAN, so select the Local Area Network option.

If your machine has a sound card, the setup program will display the Audio Tuning wizard. You don't need to enable this feature; however, you have to click through this portion of the setup process to continue. When you complete the audio portion of the configuration and click Finish, NetMeeting will begin running.

To suit each troubleshooting session, you can change NetMeeting's configuration parameters on the Help desk machine. However, when you install NetMeeting on end users' computers, you should standardize their configurations. You do this by selecting Options from the Tools menu on the end user's machine and clicking the Show The NetMeeting Icon On The Taskbar on the General tab. Also, consider selecting the Run NetMeeting In The Background When Windows Starts option. When you enable this option, NetMeeting will automatically run on end users' systems, so you don't have to walk users through the process of starting NetMeeting. However, with this option selected, you can't use Remote Desktop Sharing because you can activate that feature only when NetMeeting isn't running. For remote sessions to run smoothly, consider disabling NetMeeting's audio and video features by clearing their options on the Audio and Video tabs. The audio feature can interfere with other operations and sometimes lock up the machine.

To run programs on a remote machine, select the Enable Sharing option from the Tools menu. When you select this option for the first time, the software tells you that you need to install additional software on the remote computer (i.e., software that enables you to share programs). After you complete the additional software installation, you need to reboot the remote machine for the Enable Sharing option to take effect. The software presents you with the option to reboot immediately.

Another option you might want to activate is the Automatically Accept Calls option from the Call menu. This option lets you connect automatically to the remote machine. However, a drawback to selecting this option is that you must reselect it each time you start NetMeeting because the software doesn't save this selection in its configuration. If you're using a public directory server, don't enable this option—it can pose a security risk to your system.

Using NetMeeting to Troubleshoot
After you've installed and configured NetMeeting on the Help desk machine and end users' computers, you can begin troubleshooting remote machines. For example, suppose an end user is experiencing printing problems. First, you need to connect to that user's computer from the Help desk machine. You can connect to the remote computer by typing the system's IP address or entering a DNS address, email address, or telephone number in the text box located under the menu bar in the NetMeeting window, which Screen 1 shows. You can also connect to the remote computer by selecting New Call from the Call menu (or pressing Ctrl+N) or clicking the call button and entering the IP address in the resulting text box. If your organization is using an Internet Locator Service (ILS), you connect by selecting the user's name from the list the ILS provides.

When end users choose to automatically select NetMeeting calls, they don't have to intervene to accept a call. However, to proceed with troubleshooting, you'll require the end user's assistance. First, ask the end user to run Windows Explorer. Through Windows Explorer, you can run almost any program stored on the remote computer. Therefore, you'll have full control over any application on the user's system.

Next, ask the end user to select Sharing from NetMeeting's Tools menu. In the Sharing dialog box, which Screen 2 shows, the end user will see a list of programs that he or she can share with you. These programs are the open programs on the remote computer's desktop. Ask the end user to click Windows Explorer, then Share. When the user performs these actions, NetMeeting will open an application frame on your computer for the Windows Explorer program.

For you to gain control of Windows Explorer on the remote computer, the end user must allow control by selecting the Automatically accept requests for control check box, then clicking Close to automatically accept your request to take over the application. If the user doesn't select this option, he or she must manually accept your request to take over the application.

Next, you must ask for control by selecting Request Control from the Control menu on your system. You'll have complete control of Windows Explorer on the remote computer unless the user presses a key or clicks the mouse. Screen 3 shows what this setup looks like on your Help desk desktop.

To troubleshoot the printing problem, first check the printer configuration by running control.exe in the user's \winnt\system32 directory. Control.exe launches Control Panel and gives you full control of the remote computer's configuration capabilities. After checking the printer's configuration, check the printer setup by launching the application from which the end user was attempting to print. If you don't see a problem, ask the user to take back control of his or her system by clicking the mouse key. Next, ask the user by phone to try to print the document. If the problem is an operator error, you might be able to spot the cause of the problem by watching what the end user does to try to print the document.

Simplify the Help Desk
In addition to resolving problems on remote computers, the Help desk-enhancing features of NetMeeting provide other practical functionality for your organization. For example, you can use the Whiteboard feature to simplify collaboration between end users who are developing a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. You can use the Chat feature to set up meetings between users in different parts of the world. If you need to walk a new employee through the process of sending an email message, you can use the Program Sharing feature. Best of all, Microsoft offers this functionality for free.