Conferencing on the Web
Dec 23, 1995
Copyright © 1995 by David R. Woolley
When I first wrote the chapter about Web conferencing systems for
WWW Unleashed in August of 1994, HyperNews and WIT were the only
two available. Now there are more than 40! Keeping track of it all has been
dizzying. Even as I revised the chapter last spring for the 2nd edition,
I knew it would be out of date by the time it was published. A revision
written today would have to cover several of the impressive new Web
conferencing systems that have appeared in the past few months: Motet,
WebCaucus, Web Crossing, YAPP, and Workgroup Web Forum.
Although the arrival of new products has changed the scene considerably,
the version of the chapter published last spring is still mostly
accurate, as far as it goes. A few updates:
- Time-Warner's Pathfinder site no longer uses HyperMail. They have
replaced it with a proprietary conferencing system which, while an
improvement over HyperMail, is still nothing to write home about.
- The Gate has scrapped its sluggish proprietary conferencing software
in favor of the much faster and more powerful Motet.
- HotWired's Threads still doesn't keep track of which messages you
have read, but at least it now remembers the date and time of your
last visit and will show you everything that has been added since then.
It's not ideal, but it helps.
Why None of Them are Very Good
Although Web Conferencing software has improved enormously in the past
year, the fact remains that all of the products available today are
fundamentally crippled. There isn't one of them that I would want to use
every day. The Web's point-and-click interface is inviting and helps
flatten the learning curve for beginners, but for heavy use, a telnet
connection to an old fashioned text-only conferencing system is still
preferable to any of the Web-based systems.
The problems are not the fault of the conferencing software, some of which
is quite well designed. They are inherent in the architecture of the Web
itself. The worst problems lie in two areas:
Why They're About to Get Better
Solutions for the Web's performance problems are in the works. One
promising proposal is HTTP-NG, a "Next Generation" revision of the
HyperText Transfer Protocol used in all communication between Web browsers
and servers. Under the current version of HTTP, Web browsers must
establish a new connection with the server for every item they request,
leading to a lot of time wasted in handshaking. Under HTTP-NG, a Web
browser will be able to maintain an open session with a server while it
requests multiple items. This will require software changes to both
browsers and servers, and it will be a while before it is universally
supported. But it promises dramatic improvements in performance.
The user interface problems problems are tougher, given the structure
of HTML. It's even difficult to imagine reasonable extensions to HTML
that would give software developers sufficient freedom to create a good
The solution? Bypass HTML entirely.
Java to the Rescue?
One promising approach lies with Java. Developed by Sun Microsystems, Java
is a full-featured, object-oriented programming language similar to C++.
Its big advantage is that it is platform independent: a Java program can
run on a Windows PC, a Macintosh, or a UNIX workstation. But that's not
all. Java interpreters can be built directly into Web browsers. The result
is that a Web server can automatically send a Java program to a browser,
where it will immediately begin running on the user's computer without the
user having to do anything at all.
Java-based conferencing systems will far surpass today's Web conferencing
software in ease of use. Java programs do not have to depend on the paltry
tool set provided by HTML; they can take full control of the screen layout
and implement virtually any type of keyboard or mouse interactions.
Netscape has incorporated Java into the latest version of the Netscape
Navigator. A number of other companies, including Microsoft and IBM, have
licensed Java as well. Java is beginning to look like a de facto standard.
Its potential is enormous: as Java takes hold, it will transform the
landscape of the Web as radically as Mosaic did in 1993.
Don't look now, but here come two 500-pound gorillas
As if that weren't enough, in the area of Web conferencing there are other
big changes on the horizon. Netscape is about to purchase Collabra
Software, Inc., maker of the highly acclaimed groupware product,
Collabra Share. Netscape plans to weave Collabra's technology into its Web
servers and browsers. Any Web site that runs the Netscape server will be
able to easily configure their server to host group discussions - and the
world's most popular Web browser will probably come with a sophisticated
conferencing interface built in.
Lotus Development Corp. (now owned by IBM) has thrown its hat into the
ring, too. Lotus recently announced plans to fully integrate Lotus
Notes into the Web. A Notes server will soon have the ability to
act as a Web server as well, and Notes discussions will be accessible
through any Web browser. Lotus is playing catch-up to Netscape in the
arena of the Web, but with an installed base of 1.5 million Notes
users, and with the resources of IBM behind them, Lotus will make a
The conferencing capabilities offered by Netscape and Lotus won't
necessarily be better than those of other products implemented
through Java. But Collabra Share and Lotus Notes are both powerful
conferencing products, and Netscape and Lotus will have huge marketing
advantages. There might always be a natural division in the market between
conferencing software designed for work groups, like Collabra Share and
Lotus Notes, and software designed for free-wheeling conversation, like
many of the systems modeled after the WELL. However, any of the current
crop of Web conferencing products that hopes to survive into 1997 will at
least have to make the leap to Java, and even then, the competition will
If you're a developer of Web conferencing software, you've got
your work cut out for you. If you're a Web site builder and are wondering
which conferencing software to choose for your site, there are no easy
answers. The market is still in upheaval and it will be a long time
before the dust settles. And if you've just stumbled across a pretty
good discussion forum on the Web and are looking for more, well,
you ain't seen nothing yet.
Postscript - Jan 16, 1996
Jeremy Allaire (one of the designers of Cold Fusion Forums) has convinced
me that there is a viable alternative to writing a conferencing system in
Netscape has implemented an HTML extension called "frames", which
allows the browser screen to be divided into multiple windows. Placing
navigation buttons in a separate window solves the problem of buttons that
float around and disappear when you scroll.
Netscape has also implemented a lightweight programming language called
apparently not possible, for example) but it can be used to enhance the
user interface of an interactive Web page.
are simpler than Java and likely to be adopted more quickly. In the long
run, an interface written in Java will be much more robust, but in the
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David R. Woolley is a consultant, software
designer, and writer in Minneapolis.