Conferencing on the Web
Update Notes

Dec 23, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by David R. Woolley


What's Changed?

When I first wrote the chapter about Web conferencing systems for WWW Unleashed in August of 1994, HyperNews and WIT were the only two available. Now there are more than 40! Keeping track of it all has been dizzying. Even as I revised the chapter last spring for the 2nd edition, I knew it would be out of date by the time it was published. A revision written today would have to cover several of the impressive new Web conferencing systems that have appeared in the past few months: Motet, WebCaucus, Web Crossing, YAPP, and Workgroup Web Forum.

Although the arrival of new products has changed the scene considerably, the version of the chapter published last spring is still mostly accurate, as far as it goes. A few updates:

Why None of Them are Very Good

Although Web Conferencing software has improved enormously in the past year, the fact remains that all of the products available today are fundamentally crippled. There isn't one of them that I would want to use every day. The Web's point-and-click interface is inviting and helps flatten the learning curve for beginners, but for heavy use, a telnet connection to an old fashioned text-only conferencing system is still preferable to any of the Web-based systems.

The problems are not the fault of the conferencing software, some of which is quite well designed. They are inherent in the architecture of the Web itself. The worst problems lie in two areas:

Why They're About to Get Better

Solutions for the Web's performance problems are in the works. One promising proposal is HTTP-NG, a "Next Generation" revision of the HyperText Transfer Protocol used in all communication between Web browsers and servers. Under the current version of HTTP, Web browsers must establish a new connection with the server for every item they request, leading to a lot of time wasted in handshaking. Under HTTP-NG, a Web browser will be able to maintain an open session with a server while it requests multiple items. This will require software changes to both browsers and servers, and it will be a while before it is universally supported. But it promises dramatic improvements in performance.

The user interface problems problems are tougher, given the structure of HTML. It's even difficult to imagine reasonable extensions to HTML that would give software developers sufficient freedom to create a good user interface.

The solution? Bypass HTML entirely.

Java to the Rescue?

One promising approach lies with Java. Developed by Sun Microsystems, Java is a full-featured, object-oriented programming language similar to C++. Its big advantage is that it is platform independent: a Java program can run on a Windows PC, a Macintosh, or a UNIX workstation. But that's not all. Java interpreters can be built directly into Web browsers. The result is that a Web server can automatically send a Java program to a browser, where it will immediately begin running on the user's computer without the user having to do anything at all.

Java-based conferencing systems will far surpass today's Web conferencing software in ease of use. Java programs do not have to depend on the paltry tool set provided by HTML; they can take full control of the screen layout and implement virtually any type of keyboard or mouse interactions.

Netscape has incorporated Java into the latest version of the Netscape Navigator. A number of other companies, including Microsoft and IBM, have licensed Java as well. Java is beginning to look like a de facto standard. Its potential is enormous: as Java takes hold, it will transform the landscape of the Web as radically as Mosaic did in 1993.

Don't look now, but here come two 500-pound gorillas

As if that weren't enough, in the area of Web conferencing there are other big changes on the horizon. Netscape is about to purchase Collabra Software, Inc., maker of the highly acclaimed groupware product, Collabra Share. Netscape plans to weave Collabra's technology into its Web servers and browsers. Any Web site that runs the Netscape server will be able to easily configure their server to host group discussions - and the world's most popular Web browser will probably come with a sophisticated conferencing interface built in.

Lotus Development Corp. (now owned by IBM) has thrown its hat into the ring, too. Lotus recently announced plans to fully integrate Lotus Notes into the Web. A Notes server will soon have the ability to act as a Web server as well, and Notes discussions will be accessible through any Web browser. Lotus is playing catch-up to Netscape in the arena of the Web, but with an installed base of 1.5 million Notes users, and with the resources of IBM behind them, Lotus will make a formidable competitor.

The conferencing capabilities offered by Netscape and Lotus won't necessarily be better than those of other products implemented through Java. But Collabra Share and Lotus Notes are both powerful conferencing products, and Netscape and Lotus will have huge marketing advantages. There might always be a natural division in the market between conferencing software designed for work groups, like Collabra Share and Lotus Notes, and software designed for free-wheeling conversation, like many of the systems modeled after the WELL. However, any of the current crop of Web conferencing products that hopes to survive into 1997 will at least have to make the leap to Java, and even then, the competition will be fierce.

Conclusion

If you're a developer of Web conferencing software, you've got your work cut out for you. If you're a Web site builder and are wondering which conferencing software to choose for your site, there are no easy answers. The market is still in upheaval and it will be a long time before the dust settles. And if you've just stumbled across a pretty good discussion forum on the Web and are looking for more, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Postscript - Jan 16, 1996

Jeremy Allaire (one of the designers of Cold Fusion Forums) has convinced me that there is a viable alternative to writing a conferencing system in Java.

Netscape has implemented an HTML extension called "frames", which allows the browser screen to be divided into multiple windows. Placing navigation buttons in a separate window solves the problem of buttons that float around and disappear when you scroll.

Netscape has also implemented a lightweight programming language called JavaScript. It offers far less power than Java (keyboard control is apparently not possible, for example) but it can be used to enhance the user interface of an interactive Web page.

Currently, frames and JavaScript are supported only by Netscape, but they are simpler than Java and likely to be adopted more quickly. In the long run, an interface written in Java will be much more robust, but in the near term, frames and JavaScript can improve Web-based conferencing significantly.


References

Full Text of Original Chapter | Additional Web Conferencing Articles & Resources

David R. Woolley is a consultant, software designer, and writer in Minneapolis.