Microsoft Unwraps New Web-Conferencing Offering

Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2003 is the first new release of the former PlaceWare service since Microsoft bought the conferencing vendor in January.
Microsoft takes the wraps off its most mature Web conferencing offering to date Monday when it unveils Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2003, the first new release of the former PlaceWare Inc. service since Microsoft bought the conferencing vendor in January. Even before the new service was launched, competitors were lining up to claim they're not concerned about Microsoft's entrance into the market--and that former PlaceWare customers have been jumping ship since the acquisition.

The primary change in the service is the addition of a Windows desktop console designed to give users a familiar Windows look and feel as an alternative to the browser-based interface. The Windows client, which is configured to download within seconds over a broadband connection, gives conference organizers the ability to change conference parameters on the fly, such as adding or removing chat or Q&A capabilities. But where the desktop client will be most important will be in future enhancements to the service. "The Windows native console is was the first piece we needed to put in place," says Jennifer Callison, director of marketing for Microsoft's Real-Time Collaboration unit. "It's the foundation for integrating with office and other Microsoft resources."

Initially, Live Meeting is integrated with Microsoft Outlook 2003 and the MSN Messenger instant-messaging tool, with users of both able to launch conferences directly from their messaging views. In the near future, Callison says, the service will integrate with Microsoft's pending Live Communications Server (formerly the Real-Time Communications Server) and the SharePoint line of collaboration and portal products.

The latest release also features improvements in scheduling and administration, making it simpler to automate tasks such as scheduling recurring meetings, and allowing administrators to brand the conferencing views with their company logos. Additionally, scalability has been beefed up so that companies can use the service to support up to 250,000 concurrent users, with a maximum of 2,500 users in any single meeting.

Eventually, however, Microsoft has more ambitious plans for Live Meeting. These include integration of both the Windows and browser-based clients with the complete line of Office information worker products; a more-flexible architecture that will offer both a Web-based service model and a client-server alternative; integration of Live Meeting with enterprise infrastructure components; and an overall deeper migration into the Microsoft platform.

Pricing for the service remains unchanged from the previous PlaceWare release: Concurrent-user licenses run $75 a month for the presenter edition, or $150 a month for the premier edition, which includes application sharing, meeting recordings, and the ability to convert meeting data to PDF format for easy printing. The service also remains available on a per-minute basis, with each participant costing 35 cents a minute for the presenter edition or 45 cents a minute for the premier edition.

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