With increasing economic globalization and the rise in telecommuting, businesses are having to make sure employees can work together--wherever they're located. Businesses are starting to rely on workgroup software packages to help employees use their computers to share ideas, synchronize schedules, and work on the same projects with the same applications. A newcomer in this hot market is Microsoft's NetMeeting, an Internet-based, collaborative conferencing package.

NetMeeting 1.0 is available with Internet Explorer (IE) 3.0 for Windows 95, and NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 is available for Win95 and Windows NT 4.0. The NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 user interface (UI) matches the interface of the IE3, Internet Mail, and Internet News products. Version 2.0 beta 1 has an integrated directory that simplifies viewing a list of users so you can place calls. And Microsoft has added an IE3-style toolbar, the Coolbar, that puts routine function options on buttons. Another new feature in Version 2.0 beta 1 lets the conference initiator eject individuals from a conference--version 1.0 let you remove a user only by closing the entire conference.

NetMeeting enables realtime voice conversation over the Internet, application sharing, clipboard sharing, file transfers, multiperson text-based chat sessions, and graphics sharing. NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 for NT 4.0 provides the same features as the Win95 version, with one exception: NT users can't initiate application-sharing sessions, but they can participate in an application-sharing session that a Win95 user launches. Let's look at NetMeeting's key features.

Internet Phone
Internet phone is the jazzy phrase for TCP/IP-enabled voice communications. Users who have a sound card, a microphone, speakers, and IE3 can conduct a live voice conversation over any TCP/IP-based network. NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 supports the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) H.323 standard for audio conferencing, so you can call and talk to other users running H.323 Internet phone products, such as Intel's version of the Internet phone.

NetMeeting's Internet phone implementation lets only two users talk at a time, but future versions may support conference calls. NetMeeting supports full-duplex sound cards so two people can talk at the same time, and half-duplex sound cards that operate like a walkie-talkie, so only one person can speak at a time. NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 improves the audio quality between NetMeeting 2.0 users on Pentium machines and is backward compatible with NetMeeting 1.0.

To place a call, you enter another user's IP address or email address or select the user's name from the User Location Server (ULS), a computer-based white-pages directory of network users. Screen 1 shows the NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 interface, which incorporates the ULS. ULS must run on NT Server with Internet Information Server (IIS). NetMeeting doesn't require ULS, but it simplifies the process of calling on a network. (For details about installing and using ULS, see the sidebar, "Getting Started with ULS.")

Application Sharing
NetMeeting lets you transparently share any application with other users in a conference. For example, your CFO can share a spreadsheet with your CPA across town or even in another city.

With a shared application, everyone in the conference can see each other's actions. The user sharing the application can let other users edit the application or can restrict their actions to viewing only. Only the person sharing the application needs the application on his or her system. Application sharing can add value to your business, but it can be sluggish on slow network links.

Setting up a shared application takes just a few steps. With Win95 NetMeeting, you call everybody taking part in the application-sharing session. Next, you open the application and the data file you want to use. Last, you click the application-sharing icon on the NetMeeting toolbar and select the application, as you see in Screen 2. Microsoft plans to let NT users initiate an application-sharing session in a future version of NetMeeting.

Shared Clipboard
NetMeeting's shared clipboard, which you use with application sharing, lets you share the contents of your Windows clipboard with other conference participants. For example, you can copy information from a local document and paste it into the contents of a shared application. This capability gives you a seamless way to exchange information between shared and local applications, using the familiar cut, copy, and paste operations.

File Transfer
NetMeeting lets you send a file to one or more conference participants. You can transfer files in one of two ways: You can right-click a conference member's name and send a file to that individual, or you can drag a file into the NetMeeting window to automatically send the file to each participant, as you see in Screen 3. NetMeeting transfers files in the background, so you can continue to share applications, clipboards, and other resources.

Text-based Chat
The chat feature lets conference participants communicate by typing messages to each other. The messages appear in the chat window for all conference members to see. Screen 4 shows a chat session in progress. You can even save chat sessions to disk for later use. Conference members can use the chat window to communicate ideas or to record meeting agenda items and notes.

The Whiteboard
The whiteboard is a multipage, multiuser drawing application that closely resembles Microsoft Paint. The whiteboard lets you sketch simple diagrams or charts and display your graphic information for other conference members to see.

The NetMeeting SDK
Microsoft has made available a NetMeeting software development kit (SDK). It provides an ActiveX control so you can use Visual Basic Scripting (VBS) or JavaScript-compatible languages to add conferencing support to Web pages. With the SDK, you can also give conferencing to VB applications and Object Linking and Embedding (OLE)-enabled documents and applications. Because the NetMeeting SDK provides a set of objects based on the Component Object Model (COM), you can introduce conferencing support to COM applications.

Enhancing Productivity
NetMeeting can improve communications among employees, enhance business productivity, and decrease long-distance charges. NetMeeting Version 1.0 is in the full-installation version of IE3 for Win95. You can also download a standalone version (about 2.29MB compressed) that doesn't require IE3, or if you already have IE3 installed, you can download a smaller version of NetMeeting that's about 1.97MB compressed. NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 requires about 20MB of free disk space to decompress files during the installation but frees most of that space after the installation.

NetMeeting 2.0 beta 1 Internet Explorer 3.0
Microsoft * 206-882-8080
Web: www.microsoft.com
NetMeeting: free download from www.microsoft.com/netmeeting
Internet Explorer 3.0: free download from www.microsoft.com/ie