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Magazines > Online > January/February 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2004
Feature
Web Conferencing for Libraries: "Can You Hear Me Now?"
By Ernest Perez

Reading about the wonders of today's broadband communications and the remote computer interaction features visible on the horizon makes information professionals wonder about library service applications. Can futuristic capabilities such as Web videoconferencing, remote video broadcasting, virtual tech support, or small and large group meetings via the Internet have a place in our organizations? Maybe we could add virtual reference session patron interaction, remote assistance and training with online database and searching problems, "co-browsing" with patrons to demonstrate and observe use of Web information services, and formal training sessions for multiple users. That would be great.

This is no longer a science fiction scenario. The ideas are neither outlandish, difficult, nor prohibitively expensive. Current technology levels allow practically any library with Web capabilities to offer such services. Hardware demands and operating costs are not that much of a problem anymore.

TECHNOLOGY— NO BIG DEAL ANYMORE

Your information operation is probably already perfectly capable of offering WCT (Web Conferencing Technology) services. Of course, you do need to be at a reasonably decent technology level. This means PCs of recent vintage, purchased in the last 3 years, which is what most of us are using for standard Web access applications anyway. Getting decent telecommunications bandwidth is the most important requirement. Bandwidth is the bottleneck, not demands for supergigaHertz computer processing speeds. Simple dial-up modem speeds don't cut it for offering WCT service. You'll need ISDN, DSL, or cable modem access.

Bandwidth isn't a defining limit for any but the smallest information operations anymore. In my own office, in an austerity-conscious state agency, fast network access is standard infrastructure, just like telephone or electricity. You most likely have the bandwidth capability if your operation is already seriously using the Internet as an information resource. If not, it's upgrade time.

WCT is quite effective for delivering services to the current mainstream American population. PCs and telecommunications haven't yet matched the penetration of telephones, but your best customers, your power users, are much more likely to be receptive to new technology. WCT enables you to offer instant quality professional information services to these preferred remote patrons.

With WCT, library users can get quick research consultations, enjoy tech support hand-holding, make and complete information requests and transactions, and receive bulky information content packages. Best of all, they can do it without taking the trouble to physically transport themselves over to the library or information center. No walking across campus, no looking for a parking space, no taking a break from what they're working on. It's a library school truism, going back to Ranganathan, that use of an information resource declines in inverse proportion to the effort and travel distance for using that resource. (Well, we haven't quite gotten to the information service level of talking to HAL or to the Enterprise computer, but we're getting there fast, in terms of information access convenience.)

No doubt about it...Web conferencing is cost-effective, both for library staff time and productivity, as well as for the added value of offering quick, pleasant, easy transactions to prime information consumers.

WCT TECHNOLOGY EVOLUTION

Current WCT developed from the early geek/hacker experiments with personal telecommunications. These included chat software, Webcams, slow-scan television, and the early videoconferencing attempts like CUSeeMe. Technology advances in speed and bandwidth, and the use of CCD digital video devices gave another boost to the quality. It's gone from amateurish, fuzzy, scratchy, jumpy video and garbled audio over to some fairly high-quality audio/video transmissions. If, like me, you've dropped in now and again through the speeded-up Web years to look at video communications, you've seen rapid jumps in quality and capability of WCT offerings.

True, the video is not yet at broadcast TV quality. But it's getting there. And the text and graphic displays are top quality. For example, many of the WCT packages handle PowerPoint presentations with pretty much the same quality you will see on your desktop. Many packages include text chat, whiteboard (ad hoc drawing), and recording functions. Web co-browsing or simultaneous viewing of Web pages at the host and remote site is becoming common. These abilities, along with the good audio, handle much of what we need to provide effective information service.

Note: Most computer audio conferencing systems require use of a computer headset with earphone and boom microphone. These run as little as $10 or so at your local computer or electronics store.

LEVELS OF WCT ABILITY

The cost/ability ratio for WCT has improved immensely over the last few years, and I don't see signs of it slowing down. There almost seems to be a Moore's Law for WCT applications, with power and cost constantly changing in opposite directions. Who wouldn't appreciate more power at less cost?

WCT offerings have generally split into three major approaches:

Peer-to-peer software packages, talking one-to-another

Host licensing, in which the buyer installs software to host videoconferencing for remote PCs using client software or Web browsers

Hosted services, in which individuals or organizations pay a vendor on a subscription or pay-per-use basis for providing the service from a commercial host site

I guesstimate the WCT marketplace to have somewhere in the area of 100 software or service packages at present. As elsewhere in computer software technology, it's definitely turning into a buyer's market. What follows are only a few examples of the wide variety of products you can buy at various price levels, cost top to bottom in this case.

1. WebEx [www.webex.com]: A top-of-the-line hosted service, with real horsepower, at a high-roller price.

• Claiming more than 60 percent of Web conferencing market share, WebEx is widely used by corporate enterprises. It provides capabilities for tech support sessions, one-to-one or multiple-user online meetings, large group meetings (into the thousands), Web conferencing, video conferencing services, and interactive classrooms.

• Functions include audio/video conferencing, recording of sessions, recorded presentations, encrypted communications, application sharing (joint use, operations, editing of programs such as word processors, spreadsheets, or databases), whiteboard, Flash, and streaming video.

• Cost: Enterprise pricing levels are quoted in the $200/user/month range for groups of 10-25 users. WebEx also just began pay-per-use pricing at 45¢/user/min plus 10¢/usermin telecom. This means a 50-minute meeting with 20 people would cost $550. Better than travel costs, but not cheap.

2. Talking Communities [http://talk3.talkingcommunities.com/]: Economically priced hosted service.

• Uses iVocalize software; it also sells or leases the server software for local server installation.

• Functions include voice conferencing, text chat, Web co-browsing, and easy creation of Web presentations (recording, editing, and broadcasting).

• Costs:

• Subscription, "Economical"—$52.50/month for 25 users, multiple rooms, no recording ability; "Basic"—$95 for 25 users, multiple rooms, recording ability; Professional"—$187.50/month, for 25 users, multiple rooms, recording ability, guaranteed bandwidth, redundant servers for 100 percent uptime. Discounts phase in for higher user numbers, e.g., $320/month for 100 users at Basic level.

• Server purchases, one-time payment, $50 for five users, one "conference room;" $30/seat one-time payment in 10-user increments for multiple users, unlimited rooms.

• Server leasing, $1.50/user/month, minimum 300 users ($450/month for 300 users).

• Pay-per-use note: Talking Communities hosts small or large meetings or conferences at the bargain price of $1/hr.

3. Glance Networks [www.glance.net/]: Subscription service, bargain priced, barebones capability, but quite useful (e.g., reference staff here at Oregon State Library use this product frequently for quick instruction or help sessions with remote patrons).

• Completely browser-based, no software plug-ins as many other products require. No audio, for use with phone conversations. User goes to Web site, enters a session number provided by operator at your site, and instantly sees a duplicate image of your monitor screen. Unbelievably simple, no learning curve for operator or user.

• Functions include demo software, review documents or spreadsheets, make presentations; the remote user essentially "looks over your shoulder" and sees exactly what's on your screen. This can include PowerPoint, word-processor documents, spreadsheets, video images, browser screens, etc. Note: Multiple viewers are all synchronized; all users will get screen updates at the speed of slowest user connection.

• Cost: Bargain rates, one operator/one viewer—$19.95/month, $199/year; one operator/multiple viewers—$39.95/month, $399/year. Discounts for multiple subscriptions (operator sessions).

These are but three examples out of many vendors. The range of capabilities and pricing is clear; it's a competitive marketplace.

LIBRARY WCT APPLICATIONS

The functions described are clearly applicable to library and information center usage. They support the ideas mentioned above, including remote patron support and interaction; technical support; consultative research aid; training and tutorial applications; recorded and broadcast presentations; and small and large meetings.

We're already seeing WCT type of applications in the currently developing "virtual reference" library services. Systems for these efforts have been pretty much on the high end of the WCT spectrum. But I suggest that 1) there are many other uses for this software technology, and, 2) you don't need to stick to the high-priced variety to get useful functions. That's analogous to only using expensive, high-tech, multi-button telephone handsets at limited locations, instead of using normal handsets to distribute a widely available and productive desktop tool to library staff.

WCT services are economical and cost effective for information operation applications. The hardware platform requirements and costs are well within the reach of many operations. The capabilities WCT provides to your operation and customer services are right up there on the leading edge of social and technological evolution. Providing these services also sends clear marketing messages to your clients; that speedy, responsive customer service is a high priority at your shop, and that your operation knows whereof it speaks in the information technology realm. Introducing WCT into your information environment marks you as a technological leader.

 


Ernest Perez [ernest.r.perez@state.or.us] is program manager, Oregon State Library.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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