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Office Live Meeting goes live

Microsoft today is releasing the first version of its Web conferencing software since acquiring the technology when it purchased PlaceWare earlier this year.

Microsoft today is releasing the first version of its Web conferencing software since acquiring the technology when it purchased PlaceWare Inc. earlier this year.

Now rebranded as Microsoft Office Live Meeting, the software will continue to be sold as a hosted service. With this version, Microsoft is touting a Windows client, some improved meeting management and scheduling features and better performance and scalability than the previous version, said Jennifer Callison, the company's director of product management.

The release also boasts about 30 new features, including the ability to scale up to 2,500 for a single meeting or from 2,500 to 250,000 across all meetings, Callison said.

Though the original PlaceWare technology was built on Unix and is hosted, over time it will be developed for the Windows platform, and customers may see a version that allows enterprises to host their own server for management and security purposes, Callison said, though she didn't give a time frame for those advances.

Microsoft's priority for the Web conferencing software is to improve its integration with other products in the Office System suite and with its Live Communications Server, the presence and instant messaging platform. But integration also won't happen until later, she said.

At least one analyst says Office Live Meeting gives Microsoft a running start in the Web conferencing business. Mark Levitt, vice president of the collaborative computing group at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., market research firm, said that Office Live Meeting should be viewed as the first in a number of steps that the software company will take in this area.

There are no blockbuster features in Office Live Meeting, but Levitt said the service is improved in that it's easier to use. The Windows GUI will appeal to customers, because most of their customers are already Office users. That means they will be more likely to use the software, he said.

IDC pegs worldwide revenue for Web conferencing at about $570 million this year but predicts it will grow to about $1 billion in 2007. The biggest competitors in this area, aside from Microsoft, are WebEx Communications Inc., IBM Corp.'s Lotus unit, Centra Software Inc., Documentum Inc.'s eRoom unit, Raindance Communications Inc., and others. Also, many of the large companies with collaboration software, such as Oracle Corp., are adding real-time capabilities to their products.

Some early Web conferencing customers like the technology because it gives them a consistent way to get a message across. One major financial company in New York averages about 4,500 Web conferencing sessions a month, or about 190 sessions each day. Many of those sessions are for training.

Wayne Benza, a product manager of collaborative technologies, said his company -- which he asked not be named -- is using a custom, enterprise version of PlaceWare, with its own scheduling engine. The bank developed the platform because it didn't want sensitive financial information on PlaceWare's hosted site for security reasons. Once end users became comfortable using the software for training, they started using it for other applications, such as help desk and server monitoring.

Benza said he probably won't roll out Office Live Meeting for a few years, or at least until Microsoft develops a more integrated collaboration platform.

Gorton's Inc., the Gloucester, Mass., packager of seafood, has also used PlaceWare for more than two years, mostly for training. The company has used the software for about 600 meetings.

Rick Gorski, senior manager of strategic initiatives at Gorton's, said he's certain his company will continue to use Web conferencing, although he's not completely sure which brand he'll settle on for the long term.

Microsoft's Office Live Meeting has several different pricing schemes. There is a Presenter version, which offers presentation tools, allows persistent content, attendance reporting and application viewing. A Premier edition offers those features plus application sharing, scheduling, printing and handouts and recordings.

For concurrent usage, the Presenter version is $75 per user, per month, or 35 cents per minute. The Premiere version is $150 per user, per month, or 45 cents per minute.


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