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THE FUTURE OF WEB CONFERENCING

By David R. Woolley
June, 1998

Copyright © 1998 Stylus Publishing

This is a chapter from the book Web-based Computer Conferencing, edited by Paulette Robinson, to be published later this year.


Predicting the future is always a dicey business, and never more so than when the subject is the Web. The Web has been evolving so quickly that some say one Web year is the equivalent of three real years.

When it comes to Web conferencing, though, there is one prediction that's easy to make: it will get better. In particular, user interfaces will improve as Javascript, dynamic HTML, and similar developments free software designers from the HTML straitjacket they have been forced to wear. And performance will improve as bandwidths increase and enhancements to the HyperText Transfer Protocol are adopted.

But the most interesting changes will be in the features that conferencing software offers, and in how it is used.

In this chapter, we'll look at some trends in Web conferencing that are already in progress:

We'll also look at some areas where conferencing software needs to improve, and which are ripe for innovation:

Finally, we'll look at the long term future, asking the question, "Will the Web survive?"

Hopefully, this exploration will not only help you to choose conferencing software that will adapt to your needs, but will also give you some ideas about how to put conferencing to work effectively.

E-Mail

The biggest challenge facing most Web conferencing sites is simply getting people to visit regularly. Enticing people to take a look at a Web site is one thing; getting them to make a habit of returning every day is much more difficult. It takes effort to visit a site to see if there is anything new, and the activity there must consistently be useful and compelling, or most people will fall out of the habit of checking in. Some people never form the habit even if the content is useful, simply because there is nothing to remind them to check the conference.

Discussions that take place over e-mail lists don't have this problem. E-mail discussions come to you, rather than you having to go look for them.

Whereas it requires continuing regular effort to check a Web conference, it requires effort to stop receiving messages from an e-mail list. Once you have subscribed to a list, you must take conscious action in order to unsubscribe.

For this reason alone, e-mail lists have a natural tendency to accumulate participants over time, while Web conferences have a natural tendency to lose participants.

E-mail lists also have an advantage for applications where the discussion is sporadic. A list can lie dormant for weeks or months, and then spring to life again when one participant posts a new message. But when activity in a Web conference slows, people stop checking in, and any new message that is posted goes unnoticed.

Web conferences have many advantages over e-mail lists. Some of the more important ones:

But these advantages matter little if nobody shows up. Designers of Web conferencing software are beginning to recognize this, and some have incorporated e-mail features into their products.

Notification

One way to get people to return to a Web conference is to notify participants by e-mail when there is new activity in a conference they have joined. This can be done any number of ways; which is best depends on the situation. Some possibilities:

The dominant Web browsers have built-in e-mail capabilities, and even most standalone e-mail software is now "Web aware". Hence, including a URL in any e-mail notification can provide instant access to the conference. Ideally, a single click from the notification message should take you directly to the new messages in a specific discussion topic.

Eventually, notifications could be delivered via techniques other than e-mail. Imagine an icon on your desktop that you could click on to instantly get an overview of what's new at every Web site you have opted to track.

Participation by E-mail

If we can automatically notify people about new messages by e-mail, why not go all the way and send the messages themselves? For that matter, why not let people reply by e-mail, as well?

In fact, a few Web conferencing systems have already done this, and more are sure to follow. The Web conference essentially doubles as an e-mail list server, allowing people to participate fully either via the Web or by e-mail. This is a great boon for people who have e-mail but not graphical Web access, or who find the Web too slow, cumbersome, or expensive to use regularly.

Of course, e-mail participants lose some of the advantages that Web conferences normally offer. In particular, the "sense of place" is lost. Some context is also lost, as new messages arrive with few hints as to what the preceding messages in the thread might have said.

But the overriding fact that e-mail pushes messages out to passive receivers will make this an important capability for Web conferences in the near future. This will likely be a rising trend for the next two or three years. Ultimately, however, full participation by e-mail will probably become irrelevant, as fast Web access becomes cheaper, more convenient, and more reliable. More and more people will have full time, instant access to the Web. When the Web is fully integrated into your working desktop environment, then "going to" a Web conference no longer feels like a chore.

On the other hand, automatic notification of new messages, whether by e-mail or some other means, will continue to be an important feature, even when full participation by e-mail becomes outmoded.

From a conference administrator's viewpoint, the advantage of notification is its ability to catch peoples' attention. The amount of time people have in a day is fixed, but the demands for their attention seem to be growing without limit. The result is that attention is an increasingly precious commodity. Anything you can do to capture your audience's attention more effectively is valuable.

From a conference participant's viewpoint, notification is a matter of convenience. If there are a dozen discussions that you want to keep an eye on, regularly checking them all for new activity is a pain, even if each one is just a click away. And there's no reason you should have to.

Mixed Media

The Web is a multimedia platform, and some existing Web conferencing software takes advantage of this. But even when multimedia capabilities are available, they are used relatively rarely.

In the future, nontext media will likely come to play a greater role in conferencing systems. But some media will always be used more than others.

Time efficiency is a major factor in the choice of media. In particular, how much time does it take to create a message, and how much time does it take to receive it?

For example, let's compare text with recorded speech. Imagine that all technical obstacles to the use of speech over the Internet are eliminated: every computer in the world is equipped with a microphone and speakers, audio support is built into every Web browser, and plenty of bandwidth is available. Will speech then replace text as the medium of choice in conferencing systems?

From the sender's point of view, speech might well be preferable, because it's faster to speak a message than to type it. But for recipients, the reverse is true: it's much faster to read a message than to listen to it.

A message posted in a conference is created only once but received many times. So as a general rule, efficiency for the recipient matters more than efficiency for the sender. Or to put it another way: the sender presumably has an interest in the message being received and understood. But the potential recipients typically have less at stake, and are likely to skip messages that are difficult or time consuming to receive. The sender has good reason to use a medium that is preferred by the intended audience.

The answer, then, is that speech will never replace text as the primary medium for conferencing even if all technical obstacles are removed, simply because of the time issue. It would take too much time to peruse the messages in an all-speech conferencing system.

Speech recognition systems, capable of automatically converting speech to text, have been improving steadily. As they become more prevalent, some people will find it convenient to use this technology to post messages in conferences. This is especially likely in Asia, because typing Asian languages is difficult. A conferencing system might store both the text and the original spoken version of such a message.

Text has other advantages over speech, including greater precision, searchability, and efficiency of storage. It also has obvious advantages for the deaf and hard of hearing. It has disadvantages, as well, especially the lack of vocal expression that carries so much meaning in speech. And speech has clear advantages for the visually impaired. The bottom line is that speech will be used more often in conferencing as it becomes technically easier to do so, but it will be used mainly for special purposes, and will not displace text as the dominant medium.

Audio and Video

Recorded speech is just a special case of recorded audio. What role will audio and video recordings play in conferencing?

These media have the capacity to communicate in ways that text can never match. But they run into the same problem as speech: they take a lot of the recipient's time and so are likely to be skipped over, unless the recipient has some reason to believe that the message is especially important or interesting.

They have another problem, as well. Conferencing is a conversational medium, not a publishing medium. Like e-mail, conferencing is used for rapid communication and exchange of ideas; it is not well suited to publishing polished works. Occasionally someone might spend as much as an hour composing a particularly important or detailed response, but most messages in an online conference are dashed off quickly.

What kinds of audio and video messages can be created quickly enough to be a common form of communication? There are really only two possibilities: recordings of the message sender speaking, and clips copied from other sources. Even assuming the production tools are readily available, anything else just requires too much time and effort to be used regularly in everyday conversation. But as the tools for creating and receiving audio and video become easier to use, these media will be used somewhat more frequently than they are now, when their special capabilities are called for.

Images

Images are popping up with increasing frequency in Web-based conferences. There is good reason for this, and the trend will probably continue.

Again, the critical factor is time.

For a recipient, an image is very efficient: a well designed image can convey a complex concept at a glance. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

For senders, too, a picture is sometimes the quickest and easiest way to communicate an idea. This is why lecturers draw on chalkboards, and why engineers discussing ideas over dinner pull out their pens and scribble on napkins.

There are two main obstacles to the widespread use of images in conferencing:

1. Images take a long time to download compared to text.

2. The tools for creating images are not common enough and are too hard to use.

The first problem is simply an issue of bandwidth. It will disappear over time as faster Internet connections become standard.

The second problem is more complex: it's an issue of conventions as well as software design and availability.

Today, conferencing systems that allow images within messages do it in one of two ways. The more primitive way involves the message author providing a reference to an image that resides on some other server. This leaves the author at his own devices to somehow put an image on some Web server to which he has access. More sophisticated conferencing software allows uploading images directly to the conference. But even this involves a lot of steps for the author: he must launch a separate drawing utility, create an image, save it in a file, then return to the conferencing site, find the "upload" option, and specify the file name to be uploaded.

It shouldn't be this difficult. It ought to be just as easy to include a sketch in an online message as it is to scribble on a yellow pad during a face-to-face meeting. While typing a message into a text box in your Web browser, you should be able to click on a drawing tool and begin sketching a picture or diagram, or import an image from a digital camera or scanner. The image you create should be treated as an integral part of the message, not as a separate file that requires special handling.

It will be some time before tools for creating and manipulating images are this well integrated into every personís desktop environment, but it will happen eventually.

Discussion Structure: Threaded vs. Linear

Almost as long as conferencing systems have existed, there has been an ongoing debate about how online discussions should be structured. The two main contenders are:

The linear structure is simpler to navigate and more closely resembles face-to-face conversation. In side-by-side comparisons, some conference administrators have found that a linear discussion promotes far more activity than a threaded one.

Nonetheless, many people are familiar with threaded conferences, and feel frustrated with what they view as a lack of flexibility in the linear structure.

This has become something of a religious war, but the truth is that both models have their place. In general, threaded structures seem to be better for question-and-answer applications like technical support, while linear structures are more conducive to extended, deep conversation.

In the past, every conferencing system has been designed to support one structure or the other fairly rigidly. But the distinction is now beginning to blur a bit.

Some threaded conferencing software now displays each discussion as a continuous stream of responses, making it resemble a linear structure despite the fact that responses can be added at any point. And some conferencing software is now offering administrators a choice of structures, so that some conferences may be linear and others threaded. In some cases, individual users can even choose to view the same conference in either mode.

This trend toward merging the linear and threaded structures is likely to continue, as software developers recognize that there is a continuing demand for both.

Real and Unreal Time

Conferencing is an asynchronous medium, meaning that it is independent of time.

The advantages of this are obvious. You can participate at your own convenience rather than having to match schedules with other people. Also, you can take as much time as you need to read and digest what others have to say, and to compose your own thoughts before posting a reply.

But it has drawbacks, as well. It takes a lot of calendar time to complete a conversation. It can be difficult to reach consensus on a decision because it's hard to tell when everyone has had their say. Heated arguments can flare up over trivial misinterpretations of words.

Many conferencing systems have added real-time chat to their capabilities. This is a natural development, not only because chat is popular and fun, but because groups working together at a distance need to be able to communicate both asynchronously and in real time.

In the future, additional real-time communication features will be built in, particularly "white board" capabilities that allow participants to sketch diagrams and drawings for each other as they chat. Real-time audio and video conferencing might also be added.

All of these real-time media need to be integrated seamlessly into a conferencing environment, so that participants can move fluidly between synchronous and asynchronous communication. For example, if you miss a scheduled chat meeting, you should be able to find a transcript of the session posted in the conference, along with white board sketches that were exchanged. When you enter a conference, perhaps a corner of the screen will display a list of who else is reading the conference at the same time. Or you might even find an ongoing chat session, which you can monitor as you glance through conference posts, going in and out of real time.

Identity

Conferencing systems today generally have their own proprietary mechanisms for registering participants. This poses some problems:

1. Organizations that have their own intranets usually already have some means of registering people so they can log into the network, exchange e-mail, etc. Institutions that offer distance learning through online courses also have their own registration procedures. In either case, making an off-the-shelf conferencing package recognize the existing logins and registration mechanisms can be difficult. But often, the only alternative is to require people to go through a separate registration and use a separate ID for the conferencing system.

2. People who participate in a number of online conferences at different sites have to have a separate identity at each site. Just keeping track of all those logins and passwords can be an impossible task, let alone keeping your personal profiles up to date at every site you visit occasionally.

What's needed to solve the first problem is a standard method for maintaining and verifying identities. The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) might provide a good set of conventions for this purpose. Registration procedures could become modular components of conferencing systems, so it would be a fairly simple matter to make a given conferencing system use an existing directory of users.

Solving the second problem is more difficult. Eventually, there might be some way for each person to uniquely register their identity on the Internet as a whole. Registering for a new online conference then becomes a matter of setting up a link between that conference's records and your universal identity server.

That would be very convenient, but it also raises privacy concerns. You might not want your identity in a gay chatroom to be easily associated with your identity on your employer's network, for instance. It needs to be possible to control which portions of your personal information are available to whom. This is a very complex issue, which is not likely to be resolved entirely any time soon.

Where's the Action?

At a large conferencing site, a newcomer or occasional visitor is faced with a daunting task: how to find the most interesting and active discussions. There might be dozens of conferences and hundreds of existing discussions, many of them long dormant. But they all tend to look about the same when you're scanning lists of titles.

Why does this matter? We tend to think of conferencing as being independent of time, and to a certain degree it is. But its time independence is not absolute. If you post a reply to an old discussion, you might find that the people you are attempting to engage are no longer reading the conference. Even if they are, they might feel they have already exhausted the subject and have little interest in revisiting it. By not being present when interest in a certain discussion is high, you miss the chance to participate in it. You can read the proceedings later, but that's a very different, less rich experience.

Conferencing systems need to develop easier ways for people to find the "hot spots." These methods need to be highly visual, so you can understand them at a glance. For example, imagine a cluster of dots next to each conference or discussion title. The density and color of the dots might indicate how many people are involved in the discussion and how long it has been since they have visited it. A large cluster of bright red dots could indicate a currently active discussion involving many people; a few violet dots would indicate a recent discussion among a small group; a cluster of blue dots would indicate a discussion that has been dormant for a while.

But this isn't enough. It would also help to know who is participating in a discussion, and whether it matches your interests. If a certain discussion has attracted people whose interests are similar to your own, chances are good that it will be worth your while to read it.

"Collaborative filtering" is a technique that has received a lot of attention recently. Online merchants are already making use of it. For example, a book seller can keep track of all the titles you have ordered. By matching your list against those of other customers, they can find other people whose interests seem similar to yours. Then they can alert you to other books that have been popular among those people.

A few conferencing systems have dabbled with collaborative filtering by providing ways for participants to rate their interest level in messages or discussions. Such methods are problematic, though. For one thing, being constantly asked to rate things is a burden; it's time consuming and distracting from the discussions at hand. Secondly, it is difficult to get people to distinguish between their interest in a message and their agreement or disagreement with its content.

Future conferencing systems will likely make use of collaborative filtering, but it will have to be done automatically, without relying on participants to rate discussions.

Making Sense of the Discussion

Often, a long discussion will leave the participants feeling a bit lost. The conversation might have taken so many twists and turns that people are unsure of where they have gotten to, or even what the original question was.

It is enormously helpful to have a facilitator occasionally post a summary of what has been said so far. A summary might identify areas where consensus has been reached, and questions that are still unresolved. It might point out the major themes that have arisen, providing a framework for further discussion. It can summarize arguments that have been made, so as to prevent the discussion from retracing the same ground over and over. And the summary can provide links to the full original text of any messages that it references.

A good summary is helpful to the participants, but even more valuable to anyone coming late to the discussion (provided that the conferencing system makes it easy to locate the summary.)

In addition, a well written summary, with links back to the original discussion, can serve as the publishable "product" of a discussion.

It's too much to hope that such summaries can ever be generated automatically. Writing a good summary requires human intelligence; it involves not just comprehending the meaning of individual messages, but recognizing and describing complex patterns and relationships between them.

But conferencing software could make the summarizer's task easier. Existing software provides few tools for digesting and making sense out of the massive quantities of text that are often produced during an online discussion. Consequently, creating summaries involves much more tedious, rote work than it should.

For example, perhaps the system could provide a facilitator with a way to mark key phrases and sections of text while reading through past messages, or to make notes "in the margin." Then the software could generate a display consisting only of the highlighted segments and facilitator's notes, along with message headers and links back to the original text. This would provide the facilitator with a partially digested overview of the discussion, making the major trends easier to spot. And this overview could be imported into a text editor to use as the starting point for a summary.

Even if the facilitator doesn't go on to write a full-blown summary, the overview produced by this process might be very helpful to participants.

To date, very little work has been done on such tools. It's an area that is ripe for exploration.

Will the Web Survive?

Ultimately, the future of Web Conferencing depends on the future of the Web itself.

The technology of Web conferencing software tends to closely track developments in Web technology. In particular, most conferencing systems are designed to work well with the most commonly used Web browsers, whose capabilities are evolving rapidly.

But what is the prognosis for the Web as a whole? Is it here to stay, or is it a flash in the pan that will soon be pushed aside for "the next big thing?" For anyone considering a major investment of time and money on a Web-based project, this is a question worth asking.

All indications are that the Web is here to stay.

Although various methods of networking computers and terminals have existed since the 1960's, none of them have even come close to gaining the nearly universal acceptance that the Web has. The Web has swept like a tsunami through the various networking platforms of the past: dial-up BBS's, large online services like CompuServe and AOL, and corporate LAN's (now more commonly referred to as intranets). Microsoft, Lotus, Novell, and virtually all of the other large corporations in the software industry have changed course as they have realized that they must adapt their products and strategies to the Web or die. This despite the fact that many of them had vested interests in other networking technologies.

Even software products designed to run on individual desktops, such as CD ROM encyclopedias, have adopted Web browser interfaces. Word processors, databases, multimedia authoring tools, groupware, and money management software have sprouted extensions to make them interoperable with the Web. Hundreds of new Web sites are being created every day. The Web is even seeping into places where there are no computers in the traditional sense: Web TV delivers Web content to the living room of the average couch potato.

The world has embraced the Web as its universal method for connecting every computer to every other computer. Whether the Web was the best possible choice for this purpose is debatable, but by now the question is moot. The collective investment in the Web is now so enormous that replacing it entirely with something else would be extremely difficult.

But other widely used technologies have become obsolete when something better came along. For example, CD's have almost entirely replaced LP's as a medium for recorded music. What's to keep the same fate from befalling the Web?

Several factors combine to give the Web its staying power.

First, it is not under any one company's control, and does not depend on any one company's health for its survival. It's an open playing field, within which anyone can compete.

Second, its architecture is modular. You can dial up through one service provider, receive your e-mail through another, and house your Web site at a third. You can combine a Web browser designed by one company with plug-ins designed by several others. You can mix and match software tools created by hundreds of different companies to build your site.

But the key point is this: the Web is not a single technology. Rather, it is a collection of many technologies that work in concert. It includes countless pieces of software and hardware, as well as the many protocols and conventions that allow these parts to work together. Some of these components, like the underlying technologies for routing packets of information from place to place, have been developing for decades.

Individual components of the Web can change or be replaced. Browser software evolves at a frenetic pace, often introducing new HTML extensions. The Web's capabilities are constantly being extended as new component technologies are added, such as Javascript, Dynamic HTML, and XML. Low level protocols like HTTP also evolve to meet changing needs, albeit more slowly. The Web's architecture makes it extremely adaptable.

To return to the music analogy, the Web is more akin to our entire system of recording and distributing music than it is to the LP. The LP was merely a component technology of a much larger system. When CD players were introduced, they were designed to coexist with existing equipment. They plugged into the same amplifiers and played over the same speakers as turntables and tape decks. Individual formats for distributing recorded music might come and go, but the recorded music system as a whole has operated continuously and seamlessly for many decades.

The Web will continue to evolve in much the same way, only faster. Ten years from now it will probably bear little resemblance to the Web we know today. But the change will be continuous and incremental, always building on the existing structure. Web technology is so malleable that there is really no limit to what can be done with this sort of tinkering.

The Long Term Future

The written word has existed for at least 5,000 years. It was an invention with vast implications, because it made it possible for human communication to transcend both distance and time. But writing was essentially a one-to-one medium. That is, a message could be read by only one person at a time.

The printing press greatly amplified the power of the written word by making it easy to distribute one person's writings to a large audience. Publishing transforms writing into a one-to-many medium.

Now computer conferencing has taken it a step further by making it possible for a group of people to converse across time and distance. Conferencing turns writing into a many-to-many medium.

While the impact of conferencing on society might not be on quite the same scale as the invention of writing itself, it is nonetheless a significant development, having made possible a type of communication that was never before practical. Now that it's here, it's not likely to disappear.

A century or two from now, whether there will still be something called "the Web" is anyone's guess. But as long as groups of people have reason to communicate independent of time and space, conferencing will have reason to exist.


David R. Woolley is a consultant, software designer, and writer in Minneapolis.
drwool@thinkofit.com

Index of Web-based Conferencing Software