Web Conferencing, Webinars, …


Communication at a distance may not be as effective as in person meetings but it is a lot more efficient. Obviously it saves the cost (travel, lodging, meals, local transportation, …) and time to go and return for all participants who must travel. A round trip across the US for a short meeting can take 24 hours, an international trip 3 days. Also there are no delays due to scheduling difficulties for travel or possible problems if a flight is cancelled. The only drawback relative to in face-to-face meetings is that it can be more difficult to establish personal relationships which are often developed outside of the formal meetings with prospects, customers, partners, and fellow employees. Also, for some things like test driving a car or seeing a house before purchase, you just have to be there.

Centuries ago communication at a distance was carried out using smoke signals, mirrors, lamps, and flags. These methods have obvious problems. Most don't work at night or in bad weather. All are limited by the amount of content they can realistically communicate and the distance that they can cover. Sometimes communications was simply a matter of humans carrying verbal and/or written information. Several instances stand out in our memory. Around 490 BC Phidippides ran the 26 miles to Athens to carry the news of the surprise victory over the Persians on the plains of Marathon and to warn about approaching Persian ships. He delivered his message and then died shortly thereafter from exhaustion. Immortalized in poem by Longfellow (remember the phrase: 'One if by land, and two if by sea") Paul Revere rode through every Middlesex village and farm in April 1775 to spread the alarm that the British were coming. The western movie romanticized the Pony Express. This mail service involved just 183 men over a period of just 18 months in 1860 to 1861. An ad for riders in a California newspaper read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." In August 1943 John Kennedy of the PT 109 inscribed a coconut with the message "Nauro Isl…commander…native knows pos'it…He can pilot…11 alive…need small boat…Kennedy". This simple message led to the rescue of a man later to become president of the United States.

All these age old methods of communication were limited by the distances they could cover and the amount of content they could deliver. They were largely one way communications. With the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450 newspapers, pamphlets and books of considerable size could be published in considerable numbers. But they still had to be distributed.

The telegraph (invented by Samuel Morse in 1838, used extensively in the Civil War), the teletype (invented around 1905 and financed by the Morton Salt dynasty) and wireless telegraphy (invented by Marconi in 1896, first transatlantic use in 1901) solved the distance problem but never found their way into the average home.

The invention that most improved communication between individuals was the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell 1876). As Bell himself once said in a speech "all other telegraphic machines produce signals which require to be translated by experts, and such instruments are therefore extremely limited in their application, but the telephone actually speaks, and for this reason it can be utilized for nearly every purpose for which speech is employed". This was instant, interactive communication with worldwide reach.

A lot has happened since Bell first telephone call "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" on March 10, 1876. Years ago the major limitation was that the two people had to be at their telephones at the same time. This problem was partially addressed in 1971 when PhoneMate introduced one of the first commercially viable answering machines. Voicemail was invented by Gordon Mathews in 1979. A major step forward was the mobile phone. The first working prototype of a cellular telephone, the Motorola Dyna-Tac, was publicly demonstrated by Martin Cooper in 1973.

Today with instant messaging and so forth, communication is possible 24/7 whether you care to answer or not. The biggest limitation of the telephone is it is an audio media. Camera phones aside, you can not see the other person (not always a negative) or send text or graphics. With sufficient lead time, hard copy material can be sent in advance. Of course the fax or facsimile machine can be used for this purpose. The fax was invented by Alexander Bain in 1843. In 1934, the Associated Press news agency introduced the first system for transmitting "wire photos," so news reporters could send photographs from place to place. Thirty years later, in 1964, the Xerox Corporation introduced Long Distance Xerography (LDX).

In 1956 AT&T built the first Picturephone test system and later introduced it at the World's Fair in New York in 1964. In 1970 AT&T offered Picturephone for $160 per month. There were several private video phone systems and unsuccessful commercial offerings (PictureTel VC, Compression Labs, IBM's PicTel, CU-SeeME developed for the MacIntosh). AT&T rolled out a $1,500 video phone for the home market in 1992. In 1996 MicroSoft introduced NetMeeting, a descendent of PictureTel's Liveshare Plus, initially without video. Today, VisiFone offers a low-cost broadband videophone. It is a self-contained system that does not require a PC or any external equipment. The VisiFone operates on any broadband connection and home or office network including high-speed Internet connections via DSL or cable modem. This device delivers up to 30 frames per second video and crisp audio quality.

The telephone is largely used as a means of communicating between two individuals or two groups of individuals sitting around speaker phones. A considerable advance is audio conferencing, where a large number of geographical disperse telephones are connected together. There are two primary modes: interactive and broadcast. In the later the audience is generally much larger with a principal if not a sole speaker. The former is intended for many if not all persons to actually speak during the call. There is a practical limit to number of speakers. If n people are on a call and each speaks for one minute, hardly enough time to say very much, the call will last n minutes. Since people can not see another, there is no way to signal you want to speak other than by speaking over one another. If the call is not well organized, it can quickly deteriorate. After I was hired by IBM, I joined a weekly worldwide sales call for my group that took place at 3 AM local time. No fond remembrance. Most phone company's offer audio conferencing with and without reservations, with and without operator assistance.

Video conferencing via ISDN or satellite is the next step up from audio conferencing. Kinko's at ~150 locations and some hotel chains offer this service. Several years ago I did an interview with a headhunter on the other side of the country using this capability. It cost only a few hundred dollars.

The web does all of the above and more. Prerecorded audio, video and multimedia sessions can be streamed to the desktop. The trick is that the data is compressed (encoded), transmitted, received and decompressed (decoded). A player on the receiving end is used to present the material as it is being received rather than after it has been fully decoded. Multimedia formats include ASF (Windows Advanced Streaming Format), MPEG (Moving Pictures Experts Group), WAV, AVI, QuickTime from Apple, and RealAudio/RealVideo.

In preparation for my quarterly commentary on the financial performance of leading public EDA, IP and MCAD vendors, I listen to their quarterly conference calls over the web. The press release with financial details is made accessible about an hour before the webcast which is usually one hour after the stock market closes. To access these calls, one registers on their web sites and through a number of clicks access the call using Realplayer from RealNetworks or Windows Media Player from Microsoft. If a listener has a question, he uses the telephone. Companies generally make Webcast replays accessible for a period of time after the live broadcast. These can be paused, fast forwarded and the like. Some third party firms offer access to live and archived corporate communications. For example, Vcall ( www.vcall.com ), a part of WILink's PrecisionIR, offers custom investor relations services designed to enable publicly traded companies to deliver tailored and compelling communications to an interested audience of investors. A second example would be FullDisclosure.com powered by CCBN StreetEvents. Some quarterly calls have both audio and Powerpoint slides.

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