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 “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

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

“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 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.”

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