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Fear of Flying

Leery of hopping on a plane for meetings? Web conferencing may let you hop online instead. Blending audio, video, and document-sharing technology, Web conferencing creates virtual meeting rooms where people "gather" at a password-protected Web site. There, they can chat in conference calls or use real-time text messages. They can mark up a shared document as if it were a blackboard and even watch live software demos or video clips.

For those trying to cut costs, the price is attractive: about $100 per month per user. "Travel got to be quite expensive," says Robert W. Bean, CEO of Marlborough (Mass.) software developer CADKEY Corp. Now, in a virtual meeting room hosted by WebEx Communications Inc. in San Jose, Calif., Bean pores over the details of his new computer-aided design software with his sales manager in Caldogno, Italy; his customer in Loudon, Tenn.; and his distributor in Coventry, England. CADKEY's cost: $10,000 a year, plus a onetime licensing fee of $15,000 so that its 100 dealers can also use the service. Annual savings come to $50,000--not bad for a company with 45 employees and revenues of $7.5 million.

James W. Weaver, CEO of Tracker Management Systems Inc., in Cleveland, says Web conferencing helps with sales, too. "I just did a remote product demo to a company in Holland," says Weaver, whose 11-person company develops emergency-dispatching software used by tow-truck operators. He thinks the system can add $50,000 to his bottom line.

ONE PROGRAM SERVES ALL. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Web conferencing is its simplicity. You just set up an account and download a few small software files. Those attending don't need the same hardware or software. Want to share a technical drawing made with proprietary software? Some PowerPoint slides? No problem. Every participant can see what's on anyone else's screen. Want to see faces? Even the cheapest plug-in video camera will work. The quality is poor, though, so don't count on reading facial expressions or body language.

If you're interested, you can sample Web conferencing. WebEx Communications Inc. ( and PlaceWare (, two of the more established services among dozens now available, offer free trials. But be aware you'll need a Web connection of at least 56 kilobits per second. Without broadband, some of the more dazzling features--live video feeds and shared software applications--are agonizingly slow. Still, at 56K you can run a PowerPoint presentation with real-time text chat or view the same document at the same time--and skip the small talk, too. By Kevin Ferguson

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