NetMeeting: Still Going Strong
Besides Web conferencing, readers have found many other uses for Microsoft's NetMeeting.
It's no surprise that readers frequently use Microsoft NetMeeting. After all, this Web-conferencing tool comes bundled free with Windows 2000 and XP. What is surprising is the wide variety of uses Redmond readers have found for this versatile tool, including remote diagnostics, remote access, even telecommuting.
NetMeeting's popularity is even more surprising when you consider that Web-based conferencing—the tool's raison d'etre—is pretty low on most users' priority lists. It's also notable that users are still enthusiastic about NetMeeting, even though Microsoft has long since stopped upgrading the product.
The earliest versions of NetMeeting, first released in 1996, drew a generally enthusiastic response. This free application helped business users run collaborative white-boarding sessions, text chats, audio, video and even file sharing. The downsides were that security was lacking, chat sessions lagged behind real time and the interface was considered klunky at best. NetMeeting 3.0, released in 1999, addressed most of these complaints.
It also leveraged many of Exchange's directory and address book features.
The interface for version 3.0 includes a dial pad or local video window (for users equipped with a camera); icons for dialing, hang-up and address book; easy-to-use controls for play, pause and volume; and a list of meeting participants. Across the bottom of the window are icons for more advanced features like application sharing, white-boarding and file sharing.
One of NetMeeting's strong points is its ease of installation and configuration. "There is no need to install anything," says Rob Rodriguez, customer care manager at SEI, based in Oak Brook, Ill. "It's part of the basic install." While that is the case for Windows 2000 and XP users, it's available as a free download for those running earlier versions of Windows.
You can also install NetMeeting across an intranet by creating a configuration file that installs and configures NetMeeting globally. It automatically detects which version of Windows a first-time user has and then a wizard guides them through configuration. This process seems to work well, as Redmond readers had no complaints.
While Microsoft's primary marketing pitch for NetMeeting has always focused on remote conferencing, one of the more common uses among Redmond readers is as a diagnostic, troubleshooting and support tool for remote users. Remote desktop sharing, which was added to version 3.0, helps users press NetMeeting into service for this type of work. "We specialize in outsourced help desks," says SEI's Rodriguez. "With the myriad customer configurations and networks that we support, NetMeeting is the only consistent remote access tool available to everyone."
United Coatings uses NetMeeting specifically for remote access. The company is based in Spokane Valley, Wash., and has a second manufacturing plant in Tempe, Ariz. It uses NetMeeting to access computers across offices, says Network Administrator George Carey.
"This allowed us to operate applications housed on the corporate file
server ... between the Arizona and Washington locations," says Carey. "We would simply host a NetMeeting session on the remote computer, automatically accept all calls and share the desktop. NetMeeting works well in this quasi-thin-client mode."
"With the myriad customer configurations and networks that we support, NetMeeting is the only "
Customer Care Manager, SEI
Griffin Industries has been using NetMeeting for its remote desktop-sharing capabilities for about three years, says Aaron Valance, system administrator at the Calabasas, Calif.-based homebuilder. "We use our Polycom videoconferencing for video and voice, then share our Microsoft project [files] with all our offices on NetMeeting," he says. "[NetMeeting is] already installed on all systems, and shares the programs smoothly enough, but the cost savings connected with using our videoconferencing and NetMeeting are almost immeasurable."
Rhys Edwards, lead technical architect at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP, whose U.S. headquarters are in Wilmington, Del., appreciates NetMeeting's openness and flexibility. "Anyone can use it and you can search by the user's name instead of their computer name
or IP address," he says. "This has helped our second-level support and installation team service users more efficiently on our large campus."
Collaboration could soon be a big deal for AstraZeneca, says Edwards, and for how the company uses NetMeeting. "We're just beginning to explore its use as a collaboration tool for users distributed around the country," he explains.
Other Redmond readers are already using NetMeeting 3.0 for collaboration and remote desktop sharing. "I'm in California and I have a colleague in Minnesota," says Mary McClure, a Unisys Corp. software engineer. "With the time difference and our different work schedules, I can use NetMeeting to connect to her desktop and help out with her projects after she goes home for the day."
McClure says telecommuters also use NetMeeting to keep in touch with the office. "They use it to access their desktops at work to check e-mail and transfer files, in conjunction with a VPN to tunnel in through our firewall," she says. However, there are limitations with this type of use. "These are occasional telecommuters … who access [the Internet] through dial-up," McClure says. "So they can't accomplish much with the frustration of slow response times, but they can at least check their e-mail."
One benefit noted by several readers is the enthusiastic support community, satellite products and advice surrounding NetMeeting. You can find a treasure trove of information at independent Web sites and Usenet groups.
Despite that enthusiastic grass-roots support, the cold, hard fact is that Microsoft announced its phase-out in 2003 after it purchased Placeware, which was folded into the Office suite as Live Meeting. That is a major issue facing any company continuing to use NetMeeting on a regular basis. "We're noticing the lack of Microsoft support on NetMeeting," says Jim Broniec, desktop engineer at Thompson Hine LLP, a law firm with offices in the United States and Europe. "We [may] can
NetMeeting and implement a Live Meeting server on the back of our Exchange 2003 infrastructure."
Others would just as soon hang onto NetMeeting. "Sometimes NetMeeting fits the bill better for informal, internal encounters," McClure says. However, she adds that, "[Unisys] is a subscriber to Live Meeting, and a quick look at our schedule shows it is being used rather heavily."
"The cost savings connected
with using our videoconferencing and NetMeeting are almost immeasurable. "
Aaron Valance ,
Despite its inevitable demise, some readers say NetMeeting needs little more than better public relations. "Many
people—including new employees here—don't realize the strengths it has to offer," says SEI's Rodriguez. "Once we show them it's available regardless of their version of Windows and that they can demonstrate something by letting a user watch their desktop, remotely control and transfer files, they quickly become converts."
Naturally, there's a wish list for fine-tuning features, futile though that may be for a product on death row. "The only drawback to NetMeeting is that you can only control one session at a time, regardless of server connection," explains Kurt Teare, manager of IS
services at Tampa, Fla.-headquartered Quality Distribution.
Jorge De Funes is a big fan of NetMeeting from previous jobs. As the IT systems and network administrator at Madrid, Spain-based Foster Wheeler Energia SA, a subsidiary of Foster Wheeler Energy International, he has encouraged Foster Wheeler staffers to use it and says they're hooked. However, he adds, his company uses a lot of CAD drawings and 3-D players, and NetMeeting does not support them all. "It seems to be incompatible with OpenGL," he explains.
That's a serious incompatibility,
as OpenGL is a widely used vendor-neutral standard for high-performance graphics. As a result, Foster Wheeler is testing other tools for remote training. "But for remote support," says De Funes, "NetMeeting is giving us a good result."
The aftermarket and enthusiastic support surrounding NetMeeting ensure it will live on long after Microsoft pulls the plug. "NetMeeting is extremely valuable in a help-desk environment," says Rodriguez. "Sometimes being able to see an end user's desktop is invaluable while solving a problem. Having NetMeeting as
an option, regardless of the Windows [version], is a great thing."
And you can't beat the price. "It
is fulfilling a need," says Quality
Distribution's Teare. "The fact that it's free makes it even better."
Steve Ulfelder is a freelance technology and automotive writer.