RealTime IT News

Microsoft Launches Live Meeting, Boasts Office Integration

Microsoft Monday gave a new twist to its Office 2003 productivity suite as it launched Microsoft Office Live Meeting, a Web conferencing service built on its acquisition of PlaceWare, that it said will be the first in a series of services to tie into its Office System.

"This will be the first service for Office," Jennifer Callison, director of marketing for the software titan's Real-Time Collaboration (RTC) business unit, told internetnews.com. "This signifies Microsoft's intent for further services for Office."

Live Meeting ushers in more than 30 new features to the PlaceWare offering, Callison said, including tight integration with Outlook 2003's Calendar function, the PowerPoint 2003 slide show application, and the company's MSN Messenger instant messaging client. Further integration with Office 2003, as well as Microsoft's Office Live Communication Server, are still to come.

"Microsoft's positioning of an upgraded conferencing service -- formerly known as PlaceWare Conference Center -- as an extension to its new Office System will encourage customers to create their own custom blends of insourced, outsourced, real-time and non-real-time collaboration," said Mark Levitt, vice president for Collaborative Computing at research firm IDC. "End users will be more likely to collaborate successfully when they have access to a palette of various collaborative tools that are flexible enough to meet diverse and changing business needs."

Among the new enhancements to the offering, Callison said the new Windows native console may be the most important. While the company is retaining its browser-based "reach" client, which allows the service to reach users that don't utilize the Windows platform, many of the newest features take advantage of the new Windows "rich" client.

The Windows client offers presenters the ability to enable and disable any feature, scale graphics, move and close panels, move and rename slides, move annotations and utilize a highlighter. It also features keyboard shortcuts, context sensitive menus, the ability to sort and filter participants, simplified recording controls and rollover help for buttons.

"It's a foundation for further integration with Office," Callison said.

Callison said Microsoft has also made improvements to meeting management and scheduling. Integration with Office allows users to schedule meetings from within Outlook or to use the service's scheduler, which now includes color-coded menus. The schedule also now shows meetings to which users have been invited, together with those scheduled by the user. Also, for clients that want to manage branding and art for Web conferencing sessions themselves, rather than turning it over to the Live Meeting/PlaceWare team, the new service gives users that capability.

Microsoft has also increased the scalability and reliability of the backend service, Callison said. It has added clustered server technology for additional fault-tolerance, and dynamic load balancing capabilities. Callison said that prior to this release, the maximum single meeting size it could offer customers was 25,000 participants. That was also the limit for a customer's concurrent meetings. Now, she said, Live Meeting offers a maximum for both single meetings and concurrent meetings of 250,000 participants.

Callison said Microsoft sees a strong opportunity in Live Meeting, as Web/data conferencing has shown strong growth in the past several years, despite the general malaise of the economy. She attributed the phenomenon to the "hard" return on investment (ROI) that companies can attain by utilizing such services rather than sending employees to face-to-face meetings.

"With Live Meeting, we can meet more frequently from anywhere more effectively...I think it's really allowed us to accelerate our projects," said R. Lee Allen, manager of eBusiness operations at Honeywell.

Allen told internetnews.com that his team has been beta testing the Live Meeting version of the PlaceWare service for several months. He said one of the biggest improvements his team has identified is the fact that users no longer have to select between an "auditorium" room or "collaboration" room when initiating a session. That in itself will reduce confusion, he said.

"The tools seem to function a little better," he said. "I think it's going to drive some additional usage from our team."

He noted that once Honeywell migrates to the latest version of Office, Live Meeting's integration with that suite will also be a bonus.

Honeywell has been evaluating the savings generated by using Live Meeting/PlaceWare through Six Sigma . It measures savings in travel costs, efficiency, and the ability to get geographically distributed teams to collaborate effectively on projects.

"We think that if you were to look at a ratio, you're probably seeing 30- to 40-to-1 savings by using the product," Lee said. "That's why it's a very valuable service within Honeywell."

Callison noted that while nothing will take the place of face-to-face meetings, Microsoft is focusing on bringing collaboration features to the service that make it equally rewarding. The company's national marketing campaign for the service, which will roll out to TV, print and radio fully by the end of September, will seek to capitalize on that sentiment with the tag line, "It's like being at the same table, only worlds apart."