Conferencing Solutions Converge

Integrated collaborative technologies provide multiple ways to communicate simultaneously.

In the ideal world, effective corporate collaboration would include the ability for business partners and co-workers to see and hear each other and to share documents and information in real time. The reality, though, is that distance, travel expenses and time constraints make such face-to-face interactions less likely.

But that's changing as more collaborative technologies are being integrated into one solution. In the next five to seven years, more companies will have the option of using conferencing solutions that enable them to easily switch back and forth from Web, video and audio conferencing as well as instant messaging and e-mail, says S.V. Purushothaman, program leader for conferencing and collaboration at Palo Alto, Calif.-based consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. "In the five- to seven-year timeframe we are looking at an integrated conferencing application -- not just an application, maybe even an integrated conferencing platform similar to the Microsoft LCS (Live Communication Server) -- which blends in conferencing applications, instant messaging [and] productivity applications into one single platform," Purushothaman says.

Indeed, the convergence of collaborative technologies is growing. Frost & Sullivan estimates that by 2009 the market for integrated collaborative applications will grow to an estimated $3.8 billion from $48 million in 2004. Frost & Sullivan projects the overall collaborative technology market will grow 12.6% annually from about $4.8 billion in 2004 to $9 billion in 2009.

Having multiple modes of data sharing helps companies in several ways, says Greg Brophy, director of product management for conferencing collaboration at communications software provider Avaya Inc., Basking Ridge, N.J. For one, it allows users to share documents using Web conferencing while also communicating with each other telephonically, by video or instant messaging. Also, the addition of video, which in the past wasn't cost-effective for most companies -- $8,000 to $10,000 per desktop computer 10 years ago versus about $300 today -- helps personalize meetings, Brophy says.

For paper-products manufacturer Weyerhaeuser Co., collaborative technology has allowed the company to answer customer and supplier questions in real time through instant messaging. The Federal Way, Wash.-based company implemented Microsoft LCS in the spring of 2005 to improve external relations, says Tracey Reuck, senior infrastructure consultant for IT security. Business partners with AOL, MSN or Yahoo! accounts or Microsoft's Enhanced Federation, which is a private organization-to-organization server, can communicate with Weyerhaeuser through instant messaging. Although the company hasn't conducted any formal return-on-investment studies, Reuck says customer response has been positive.

But the company's success hasn't come without challenges, Reuck says. "There isn't an integrated anti-virus solution, so if you download an attachment, it doesn't scan it as it's coming though your messenger, so we actually turn off file transfers."

Additionally, only 3% of the company's users have instant messaging because the technology requires company approval, additional configuration and another license.

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