Author: Nola Young
- What are the different ways that the Internet facilitates business collaboration?
- How do Internet forms of communication differ from more traditional mediums?
- What software and hardware is required to take advantage of the Internet’s communication mediums?
- How effective are Internet collaboration methods for business?
One of the great features of the Internet is the ability it grants to users to collaborate across great distances. An Internet user in Halifax can easily communicate with another Internet user in Victoria. Clearly the value of this kind of communication to a business cannot be understated. There are many different methods that facilitate this kind of communication. The purpose of this document is to explore some of the different methods of internet collaboration and the best way to implement them to take full advantage of the communicative benefits the Internet has to offer.
The forms of collaboration on the Internet can take several different forms, which will be explained briefly in the section below.
The original form of communication on the Internet, e-mail (short for electronic mail) has become nothing short of a phenomenon in recent years. E-mail is basically the electronic equivalent of postal mail (or “snail mail” in the Internet parlance,) although much more rapid. With electronic mail, a user at one end types a message to a user at the other end, and sends the message. The message travels through the Internet to the other user, often within seconds, and the other user can then open the mail.
E-mail also offers several other advantages over “snail mail,” apart from its rapidity. Users can attach files to e-mail messages, such as Word documents or graphics, that the other user can then open. As well, e- mails can have subject headings and can easily be sent to multiple people (by adding their names to the “cc:” or “carbon copy” line of the e-mail message) or users can forward received e-mail messages to other users.
More recently, several different forms of instant messengers have arrived on the Internet. Instant messaging is basically a cross between e-mail and Internet chat rooms. With an instant messenger, when a user sends a message to another user, the message instantly pops up on the other user’s screen. Most instant messengers also offer other features, such as file transfer between two computers and even built-in chat facilities to allow users to “talk” to each other in real time.
The third form of Internet collaboration that will be discussed here is conferencing. Conferencing applications generally have a great number of features and are typically aimed toward business situations. Conferencing software generally combines features such as a chat program, file sharing and a shared whiteboard. These features allow people who aren’t sitting at the same table physically to be sitting at the same table at least metaphorically. Conferencing software is specifically designed to allow meeting participants from every corner of the Earth to be able to come together and discuss topics and still be on the same page as every other participant.
Perhaps one of the most exciting features of this conferencing software, however, is the ability to set up audio or even video conferences. Users with computer cameras, or webcams, connected to their computers will be able to see and hear every other user in the meeting. The potential these features have for reducing business travel is enormous, although unfortunately while conferencing software is often freely available, the hardware necessary to take advantage of the video conferencing features is sometimes expensive.
All three of these forms of Internet collaboration have at their core specialized Internet software. Fortunately, however, the software for all three of these methods is freely available for download on various sites. This section will examine some of the software available to take advantage of the benefits Internet communication can bestow.
Most web browsers come pre-packaged with some form of e-mail software, so it is quite likely that you already have the software necessary to access e-mail. However, there are numerous alternatives available to these pre-packaged applications.
Outlook Express (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/oe/): Outlook Express is the light version of Microsoft’s Outlook software, but for e-mail purposes the light version is just as effective. Outlook Express is a part of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer but can also be downloaded separately. Not only can Outlook Express send plain text e-mail messages, but it can also send HTML messages which allow users to format text (such as making it bold or even incorporating images into the message.) Outlook Express is free to download.
Netscape Messenger (http://home.netscape.com/download/): Netscape also has an e-mail client, which it includes in its Netscape Communicator package. The features of Netscape Messenger are very similar to the features in Outlook Express, with a few small differences. Netscape Messenger is also free to download as part of Netscape Communicator.
Eudora 4.3 (http://www.eudora.com/): For users interested in an alternative to the e-mail clients offered by web browser developers, Qualcomm has published Eudora for many years. The latest release of the Eudora e-mail client allows users a choice of three options. The first is to use the software in a limited form for free, which does not allow users anything more than a fairly rudimentary e-mail service. The second option is to buy the software, for approximately $50.00 CDN. The third option is to use the full features of the e- mail client but at the expense of allowing banner advertisements to appear on the user’s desktop. These three options allow some choice for the user, although of course such a choice is not necessary in the completely free offerings mentioned above.
Web-based E-mail There have recently appeared a plethora of web-based e-mail services. These services allow users to send and receive e-mail using nothing but their web-browser. It also offers the advantage of being able to access the e-mail easily from anywhere a user can find a web browser. There are numerous free services including Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com/) and Yahoo! Mail (http://mail.yahoo.com). These services do not require you to download a separate e-mail program in order to access your messages.
Instant Messaging Software
The original introduction of instant messaging resulted in an explosion of new users becoming interested in it. There are several different applications for instant messaging purposes and these will be listed below. The value of instant messaging for business users is perhaps questionable, as the software was generally designed for more casual home users. However, for many applications, even in the business world, instant messaging may be the perfect solution.
ICQ (http://www.icq.com): ICQ (pronounced I-Seek-You) was the program that started the instant messaging craze. The network now consists of many millions of users. ICQ represents itself as a flower- shaped icon on the taskbar. When a user sends a message, the recipient’s computer will emit a sound and the icon will flash, allowing the recipient to click on the icon and read the message. ICQ also offers a great many other features, including the ability to send virtual greetings cards, the ability to launch multi-player games and a service that allows users to meet other randomly selected users. ICQ is a free download.
AOL Instant Messenger (http://www.aol.com/aim/): AOL and Netscape collaborated to produce this software, which is very similar to ICQ with a few different features. In addition to the instant messaging communication between users, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) allows users to track stock quotes and receive instant stock alerts, facilitates the sharing of images and will notify users if they receive e-mail messages. AIM is a free download that is included with newer versions of Netscape Communicator.
MSN Messenger Service (http://messenger.msn.com/): MSN Messenger Service (MSNMS) is also very similar to the other instant messengers. As with all Microsoft products, one of the biggest features touted by the developer is the ability of MSNMS to integrate with other software already on the user’s computer. MSNMS will add functionality to Outlook Express, for example, if it is installed. The service also interacts very well with Hotmail e-mail accounts. MSNMS is a free download for all users, not just members of Microsoft’s MSN online service.
Yahoo! Messenger (http://messenger.yahoo.com/): Yahoo! Messenger provides all of the features standard to an instant messenger. It is like MSNMS in that it integrates well with web-based e-mail, although it is designed to work with Yahoo! Mail rather than Microsoft’s Hotmail. The primary advantage that Yahoo! Messenger has over its competitors is that it is supported by all the services that Yahoo provides. The program integrates with Yahoo’s auction sites, has a built-in Calendar feature, and instantly delivers news, stock quotes and sports scores to the user’s computer if the user asks for that service. Yahoo! Messenger is a free download.
Although there are other packages available, including one from Netscape, Microsoft NetMeeting (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/) is emerging as the standard in Internet conferencing. This application consists of all the features inherent in Internet conferencing software. All users using
NetMeeting will be able to communicate with each other using their keyboards through text-based chat facilities. As well, NetMeeting users can share files and have access to a shared “whiteboard,” upon which all the participants in the meeting can draw. Recent versions of NetMeeting even have the capability to interface with more traditional teleconferencing technology, such as telephones, allowing people without Internet connections to participate in NetMeeting conferences.
With an additional investment, however, NetMeeting users can add audio and video abilities to their meetings. Anyone with a computer camera (or “webcam”) and a microphone will be able to see and hear each other as they meet. This feature makes it possible to meet “face-to-face” with a colleague or business associate across the country with neither the expense of a business trip nor the cost of a long-distance phone call.
- Conferencing Hardware
The two elements required to take the greatest advantage of conferencing software are a camera and a microphone. Good microphones are easily found and can be purchased at any computer store or through Netwerx Solutions. For this application, the microphone does not need to be exceptionally high quality as the sound will decrease in quality as it is transmitted across the network.
There are, however, many different webcams available for consumers interested in purchasing one for Internet conferencing. The cost of a webcam will range from $60 to over $300, and as always in the computer world, the price is dependent upon features. One of the most often mentioned features for webcams is their frame-rate. This describes how often the camera takes a picture. Frame rates range from 30 frames per second (fps) to 60 fps. Keep in mind, however, that a computer’s ability to transmit images is limited by the speed of its connection. A computer that is connected to the Internet by a 14.4 modem will not be very successful when transmitting video anyway, and will never approach being able to send thirty frames per second. A sixty frame-per-second webcam might be wasted on this computer. It may be time to seriously consider upgrading this computer to a faster 56K modem.
Here is a list of webcams on the market at the time of this writing. For the most current information, visit a hardware review site such as C|net (http://www.cnet.com/hardware/) to see the most recent products and prices.
3Com HomeConnect ($240.00) Kodak DVC 325 ($166.80)
Xirlink IBM PC Camera Pro Max ($178.80) Intel Create & Share Camera Pack ($260.00) Logitech QuickCam Pro ($156.00)
Netwerx Solutions can help businesses take advantage of Internet collaboration technologies. Netwerx can set up e-mail and conferencing systems and will provide balanced advice to help business owners decide what opportunities the Internet provides for improving their communication.
The Internet has enormous potential as a communications medium, and much of this potential is still unrealized. While technology to communicate on the Internet is constantly evolving, the benefits of investing in the advantages of the Internet far outweigh the risks of investing at the wrong time in soon-to- be obsolete technology. At the speed at which business proceeds in today’s world, to ignore the gains accrued through the use of the Internet for communication is to sacrifice what would be a serious edge.
Attachments Files that are sent with an e-mail message that can be opened on the recipient’s computer.
Cc (carbon copy) A line in an e-mail message that allows the sender to send the message to multiple recipients.
Chat A form of communication in which Internet users “talk” to each other by typing messages that immediately show up on the other person’s screen, creating something that looks something like a movie script.
Client General term for software that allows users to access a feature or service on the Internet.
Conferencing A form of chat with more features that is specifically aimed for business applications.
e-mail A form of Internet communication analogous to mail in the real world in which users can send letter-like messages to each other.
Fps (frames per second) A number representing the frequency at which a video camera takes a new picture.
Frame The shortest element of a video. Frames are still images that, when put together, make a video.
HTML An Internet language supported in e-mail clients to allow rich text, such as bold fonts and different text colours.
Instant messaging Halfway between chat and e-mail, instant messaging allows users to send messages to others and have the messages pop up immediately on the other user’s screen.
Snail mail An Internet slang term for regular, postal mail.
Web-based e-mail A service on the Internet that allows users to access e-mail accounts from its website, without the need for an e-mail client.
Webcam A video camera that is connected to the computer for “face-to-face” communication over the Internet.
Whiteboard A conferencing feature allowing meeting participants to draw images and share them with other participants.
MICROSOFT OUTLOOK EXPRESS
This site for Outlook Express provides information about Microsoft’s free e-mail client and also offers the opportunity to download it.
Netscape Messenger can be downloaded as a part of Netscape’s Communicator package, which also includes a web browser, a news reader and more.
The leading alternative e-mail client is Eudora, available here for download for free or as a purchased, more elaborate version.
One of the largest web-based e-mail sites in the world, Hotmail is also owned by Microsoft and is a part of its MSN network.
Anoter site that provides free web-based e-mail.
The site for the original instant messenger contains a lot of information about the ICQ community as well as the download itself.
AOL INSTANT MESSENGER
AIM is a part of America Online’s web site, although the product was developed in conjunction with Netscape Communications.
MSN MESSENGER SERVICE
Microsoft’s instant messenger, closely integrated with the Microsoft Network (MSN).
Yahoo’s instant messenger integrates with the rest of the information available on Yahoo’s portal site.
Now the standard in Internet conferencing, NetMeeting can be downloaded from Microsoft’s site but is also integrated into many versions of Windows.
C|Net is one of the leading sources for the latest hardware and software news and is a good source for the latest reviews of new products.
Nola Young is the president of KW Digital Solutions. Send your comments or questions by email or call 519-741-7641.