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The Meeting of the (Virtual) Minds

by Tony Jaros Whoever whispered to Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams" that if you build it, they will come, had it all wrong--at least when it comes to Web sites. Webmasters know that simply putting up any old site isn't enough; the site must be active, robust, and fulfilling for all who use it. The bottom line is that it isn't if you build it, it's how you build it. Do it right and people will come back again and again--do it wrong, and you may watch your site become a World Wide Web wasteland.

There are, of course, myriad paths to take when trying to design the perfect site. You could provide great graphics, but beauty only works for so long. Or you could wow 'em with streaming audio and video, but that might slow down your site so much that its worth would be minimal (see "Does Multimedia Have a Dark Side?"). Or, as we'll spend the next couple of pages suggesting, you could give your users access to interactive groupware, and have them become active participants not only in using your site, but in helping to shape it for years to come.

Getting a Handle on Groupware

Web-based groupware is software that allows people visiting a Web site to collaborate on the creation of documents or the exchange of ideas. Experts divide groupware into two main categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous groupware allows interactivity between users who are all connected at the same time, such as live chats or videoconferences. Asynchronous groupware allows people to share information by leaving messages on a site for others to read when they log in (by this definition, even group e-mail qualifies).

As a Webmaster, you are probably most interested in those collaborative programs you can put on a server, and anyone with a browser can use. Once your groupware is up and running, the possibilities are endless. Your company could hold live intranet conferences or training sessions that other employees or site users could "attend." Ideas could flow between hundreds of co-workers, without anyone having to spend the time or money it costs for a physical assembly of that magnitude. Drawings and models could be reworked by different parties using a shared whiteboard. Groupware brings more voices to problem-solving, lets people feel involved in the shaping of the company or site, and uses technology that's both fun and interactive to get the job done.

Not Quite a Panoply of Products

Currently, much of the groupware on the market is of a point-to-point nature: Individuals can communicate or work with each other, provided they each have the appropriate software and a modem or an Internet connection. But when it comes to software that can run on a Web site and can be accessed either directly from a browser or with an easily addable plug-in, the pickings--other than generic live "chat" sites--are substantially slimmer.

The thing to remember when choosing Web-based groupware is its accessibility from the client end. If people can't use your site unless they have a Macintosh, or Windows, or whatever, you have problems. Provide cross-platform groupware to all your users, and watch the response flow in. Leave out a group of users, and you run the risk of making them feel isolated on the basis of their hardware choice. And that, as we all know, certainly isn't in the collaborative spirit.

In order to match your capabilities with the right groupware technology, you first need to know what's on the market, which is exactly where this article comes in.

The Virtues of Videoconferencing

Internet technology is wonderful, but it can sometimes be rather impersonal. With live chats, someone types information, and someone else reads it; rarely do we get any personal idea of who we're "talking" to. So despite the fact that there are technical problems involved with sending real-time video over the Internet, many people are willing to put up with less-than-perfect quality just to put a face with an e-mail address.

If you've ever tried to run a live videoconference, you know that a fundamental problem for everyday Internet users is simply connecting to other people. While you may have no problem finding and typing a simple IP address, many users would much rather work with software where they are shown a window with names, so they can simply click on the name of the person they want to talk to, or the name of an online conference they want to join.

Enhanced CU-SeeMe from White Pine Software is the de facto standard here. Based on the popular teleconferencing program originally developed at Cornell University, it allows both Macintosh and PC users to attend a videoconference with as many as eight other participants in real time. Enhanced CU-SeeMe also has live audio and text-based chat capabilities; there is no limit to the number of conferees one can communicate with using these two functions. Participants do not need a video camera to receive images, but they do need one to send.

What makes Enhanced CU-SeeMe great for Webmasters is that you can add a few lines of HTML to your page and point people to reflector software residing on your server, so that they only have to click on a link to start up their own CU-SeeMe software and join your conference automatically. The White Pine Reflector software, needed to run conferences with more than two people, is currently available on 11 Unix platforms, as well as for Windows 95 and Windows NT.

The World of Whiteboards

What is a whiteboard, you ask? It allows a document or image to be shared by two or more users; while users view the document, they can make notes or changes using the drawing capabilities of the particular whiteboard program they're using. This feature has limitless possibilities: Executives could "meet" and collaborate on slides for a presentation, or architects could comment on and revise building plans. A college professor, instead of meeting with far-flung students individually, could give lectures (complete with diagrams) during "live" virtual class sessions.

One product with whiteboard capabilities is Worldgroup 2.0 from Galacticomm. It can be used as a helper application from any browser, or as a dedicated plug-in for Netscape Navigator (a plug-in for Microsoft's Internet Explorer is also in the works). Worldgroup is made up of a number of integrated groupware applications. The whiteboard allows participants to chat and draw with each other on any of more than 65,000 different channels; what is drawn is visible to anyone else on the channel where the drawing originated. Large groups can spin off into smaller groups on other channels, complete their work together, and then rejoin the group. Whiteboard users can write, paint, make shapes, and erase. Once again, you'll revel in the program's ease of use; Worldgroup's applications can be added to a site with a few simple <EMBED> commands in an HTML document.

Enhanced CU-SeeMe's built-in WhitePineBoard allows you to show what you're talking about without having to sketch it and hold it up to the camera. WhitePine Board allows conferencers to view and make notes on their work over the network on their "electronic markerboard." Users can create documents from scratch, or evaluate pre-made files such as word processing documents, spreadsheets, and graphics.

More Features Of Note

Web-based groupware is capable of other functions above and beyond video/audio conferencing and shared whiteboards. For example, Thuridion's CREW gives users the ability to conduct a variety of administrative functions that are ideal for intranets. CREW's CardFile is an address book and group organizer, enabling groups of employees to manage contacts and resources at their fingertips. CrewCalendar allows employees access to their co-workers' schedules, which makes the planning of meetings or other office events possible without having to make several calls to see whether the parties will be available. And CrewMessenger allows for the viewing of e-mail and faxes from any other system with an Internet connection and a Web browser.

Another product with specific intranet applications is the WebShare Server from Radnet. WebShare is not a predesigned group of programs; rather, it is a set of eight groupware templates that lets you tailor a collaborative package to your organization's specific needs. According to Radnet, you should be able to get the WebShare applications for a 10- to 100-user workgroup up in less than a day. At a cost over and above that of the WebShare Server, Radnet's WebShare Designer goes a step further, allowing you to use point-and-click capabilities to design custom templates according to a company's workflow, security parameters, and other needs. In WebShare Designer, you have the ability to control the design and look of the application.

Although we've passed over basic chat programs as ordinary, iChat, a dedicated plug-in for Netscape Navigator, has special groupware functions you'll want to take note of. A site that uses the iChat software immediately becomes "live," as a frame pops up to display the contributions of everyone else present on the site. Other interesting features of iChat include event moderation, where a specifically chosen number of users can sit in on conferences with celebrities, company officials, or department heads. In addition, while chats are occurring, iChat also allows for live Web tours; "guides" can take participants around to various pages on a company's site and explain the benefits and pricing of a product, for instance--all while the chat continues live.

Groupware's ability to manage projects is evident in C.A. Facilitator for the Web, from San Francisco-based McCall, Szerdy, and Associates. Facilitator's Virtual Meeting allows conferencers to move between rooms by pointing and clicking, while the Brainstorm function lets projects develop by displaying attendees' ideas, which can be commented on or edited. And the Action Planning function allows for a group to monitor "who's doing what" when it comes to executing a plan of action, track the status, and note what percentage of the task has been completed. Finally, if Worldgroup 2.0's chat and whiteboard features weren't enough, the program also lets you set up opinion polls on your site and show the results graphically in real time. Not only can you keep track of what users think of your site, you could even display them--and play up the fact that you've made requested changes--so respondents can see that their opinions count. You could even extend an offer of rewards based on responses to surveys, such as offering free software demos or privileged access to special live chats for users who respond.

All Together Now: That's a Wrap!

Videoconferencing. Whiteboards. Project management. By themselves, each of these features has the ability to turn your site into a juggernaut of collaboration. Used in various combinations, you may find they have an amazing ability to make your Internet or intranet site a place where people actively work, not simply passively look. And when everyone benefits and you don't have to do all the work, that's something to stand up and cheer for.

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