Another important technology for virtual team effectiveness is a desktop-sharing tool. This category of tool allows team members to share their view of any PC application or their entire desktop contents with one or more others. The features we found useful for this product category are:
- Fast connect to others (less than 30 secs)
- Share with up to 10 with no performance impact
- Take snapshots and mark up the resulting image
- Save markups for distribution to others
- Lightweight client-side component—installs quickly and simply
- Integration with an IM client
- Whiteboard for brainstorming and note-taking
- Real-time list of who is in the session
- Hands-up queue for questions
- Able to connect with people outside the company firewall
Microsoft NetMeeting & Windows Meeting Space
The best product I’ve ever used for small team desktop sharing within a company firewall is the old tried-and-true Microsoft NetMeeting. This product was originally intended to be an audio and video communications tool with desktop sharing and whiteboard thrown in almost as an afterthought. However, we found the most useful features for small teams were in fact its whiteboard and application sharing. The whiteboard is far and away the best available for real-time brainstorming and sketching. The desktop-sharing feature is one of the few on the market to allow simultaneous sharing of desktops or applications by multiple participants. This is very useful for quickly switching from one desktop to another without first having to ask the active-sharing person to stop his/her sharing session.
Microsoft has replaced NetMeeting in Vista with Windows Meeting Space. This version heavily leverages the NetMeeting code base, but improves on the connection algorithm and upgrades the user interface.
For companies with an extensive Lotus Notes installation for messaging and data management, using the Lotus Sametime collaboration product is an obvious first choice. This product has very decent desktop-sharing and whiteboard components that are intuitive and easy for small teams to use. It also includes a decent IM client that can launch collaboration sessions.
Company site: Lotus Sametime (IBM)
Although this product is not promoted by HP as a general purpose team collaboration tool, it is the best Web-based product we have used for small virtual teams that allows connections between people on different platforms, between people inside and outside a company firewall, and that has decent whiteboard and application-sharing engines. It has a local client software component that must be installed (as do all Web-based sharing products), but it is small and installs quickly. It is available for Windows, UNIX and Linux, with some limitations for the latter two platforms.
The best features of this product are its application-sharing engine, short connect times, and whiteboard. It also has a very powerful feature available through the local client software tray icon. When you double click on the tray icon, you are presented with a small window showing a list of the rooms you own, as well as those other people own, but to which you a member. From this list you can single-click on a room name to enter that room and begin a new sharing session or join an existing one. For established teams, this greatly reduces the time it takes to start sharing your desktop or sketch something on a whiteboard. To make desktop sharing even easier, Virtual Rooms has an undocumented feature that allows each person to run more than one copy of the client and thus participate in more than one meeting at the same time. HP Virtual Rooms was designed for the virtual classroom market, but it is also a very effective small team tool.
Company site: HP Virtual Rooms
WebEx® is perhaps the most well known and widely used of the general purpose Web conferencing products. It is best suited for presentations where one person has the floor for extended periods. Because control of the sharing session can only be had by one person at a time, small team collaboration sessions can be very cumbersome. Also, only one desktop can be viewed at a time. A very nice feature of WebEx is its markup tools. As the presenter, you can take freeze the shared image and then highlight it with the whiteboard tools. This is a great way to keep the participants focused on the meeting and to bring clarity to the presentation.
Company site: WebEx
GoToMeeting® is a very simple product designed for group presentations and simple collaboration. Like most products in this class, you must pass desktop-sharing control from person to person, which can make free-flowing collaborative sessions difficult.
Company site: GoToMeeting®
Adobe’s Connect® is an interesting product in that it is entirely built using the company’s Flash technology, which goes further than most other products toward platform and browser independence. The product works for the most part on any of the major platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux; but desktop sharing works only on Windows and Mac). The biggest drawback for small team collaboration is speed. In the version we tested, the lag in rendering changes on the screen slowed collaborative sessions to the point of frustration.
Company site: Adobe Acrobat Connect®
Office Live Meeting has strong roots in the very large online presentations market. As such, it shines as a tool for well-orchestrated training or sales sessions with a large number of people. As a collaboration tool for small teams, however, it requires too much in the way of computing resources. Also, its whiteboard, application-sharing engine and sharing-handoff mechanism are too complex and cumbersome for effective small team use. Its strengths are in large group presentations, like most of the other Web meeting products we have seen.
Company site: Microsoft Live Meeting
Vyew is relatively new to the web collaboration market. It is entirely browser-based (at least at this time) and free (if you can tolerate some advertising) or at least relatively inexpensive. It’s desktop sharing performance is choppy, but the whiteboard application is quite good.
Company site: Vyew