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Tech Guide: Putting Enterprise Webcasts To Work

No longer a novelty, videocasting has taken off in businesses, proving its value for staff and customer meetings, training, and other new applications. Here's what you need to know to explore this emerging field.

Tech GuideWebcasting once was supposed to drive us from televisions to our PCs for entertainment and interactivity. While that vision hasn't exactly come true for consumers, at work Webcasting finally appears to be finding a home.

By fusing audio, video, graphics, chat-room features, and text in a presentation designed for broadcast over the Internet, Webcasts are evolving into an important application for businesses and other large organizations. Webcast technology is being used to run meetings, to communicate with employees, train sales forces, make product announcements, brief investors and analysts, and run corporate seminars, among other uses.

During the recent SARS epidemic, for example, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine produced a Webcast to inform doctors, students, and health-care providers about the deadly disease. "We view Webcasting as a natural migration from live events," says David Matney, the school's director of video engineering.

Over the past few years, the technology has undergone a transformation from over-hyped new channel of Hollywood-style entertainment to a utilitarian digital-communication tool for business America. The once fuzzy, jerky images appearing in a tiny window have been replaced by a multiwindow experience that bombards viewers with information and ways to interact. Webcast producers can conduct online polls by transmitting questions to viewers and receiving instant responses. Viewers may simultaneously watch and listen to speakers, view slide presentations, ask questions, and follow Web links for more information. Webcast proponents claim the experience, involving sight, sound, and participation, helps people remember more of what they're shown as opposed to just reading text. Some CEOs see Webcasting as a way for them to make their presence felt with employees, especially in far-flung offices, a practice some industry analysts call "ego-casting."

However, the technology still is evolving and many challenges remain. Probably the biggest fear that initially kept Webcasts off company networks--network gridlock--still exists. IT staff worry that the technology, which requires a constant stream of data, will crash mission-critical applications. Webcasts still are subject to images that suddenly freeze and programs that crash because of heavy network traffic. "Right now, it's safe to say the team that's responsible is holding their breath during the Webcasts," says Lawrence Orans, a Gartner analyst. Meanwhile, creating an effective Webcast remains a learning experience, often involving skills seen more in television production than in meeting rooms.

Nonetheless, the technology continues to march forward, propelled by a growing number of broadband users, the increasing use of video and audio on the Internet, and users who are becoming increasingly technology-savvy. Webcasting is carving out a place for itself in the enterprise.

The Technology
Think of a Webcast as being like a television program, but one which combines the interactivity of the Web. It's produced in one place and may be transmitted to any PC connected to the Internet. A Webcast may be broadcast over the public Internet to anyone, or over a private intranet, limited to a group of preselected people. The viewers can respond to the presentation by asking questions, sending in comments, and participating in online polls.

There are essentially two kinds of Webcasts--live and archived. A live Webcast is like a live video feed: the action appears on the screen in real time, broadcast as it happens. The viewer must watch, or attend the Webcast, at an appointed time to participate and interact with the program.

An archived Webcast is a prerecorded program that is kept, or archived, typically in a central location, so that it may be retrieved and viewed on demand, whenever the viewer chooses. An archived Webcast lets a viewer watch, but may limit participation to responding to online polls or clicking on suggested Web links. Because the program is prerecorded, the viewer can't send questions to the speaker and expect an immediate response.

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