Here Comes The Bicoastal Desktop

Judy works at headquarters in Minneapolis. Sam is in the Dallas regional office. Together, they're responsible for a presentation at the sales meeting in Pittsburgh next week. How do they jointly produce the visuals for the assembled masses?

Until very recently, the highest-tech answer available was a frustrating stream of E-mailed spreadsheets, faxed transparencies, and harried phone calls. But a better way is at hand. Variously called "application sharing" or "desktop conferencing," it allows users at widely separated locations to work together on computer files at the same time.

This collaborative software is an outgrowth of desktop video technology but aimed at a broader market. Although the cost of desktop video--which allows remote users to see each other as they work--has plunged, it remains pricey, with software and special hardware fetching about $2,000 per station. In addition, special high-capacity Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) telephone lines are needed, further boosting the cost.

By contrast, software-only application sharing for computers running under Microsoft Corp.'s Windows can be put in place for $200 a station (assuming the users already have modems) and can be done over regular phone lines. Make that two phone lines--one for data, one to talk.

The most advanced product now available is Intel Corp.'s ProShare 1.6, which hit the market in June. AT&T Global Information Solutions plans to ship its new Vistium Share software later in the summer. Both are application-sharing programs unbundled from more complex and expensive video-conferencing products. Fujitsu Ltd.'s Desk Top Conferencing is somewhat different. It allows sharing only over local- or wide-area network connections, not dial-up phone lines, but lets more than two users join a conference.

The Intel and AT&T programs (the latter was tested in a preliminary version) offer similar features. They both offer "whiteboard" screens that allow users to look at and mark up text and graphics. In ProShare, this takes the form of a multipage "notebook," which allows for a sort of remote-control slide show.

Application sharing offers greater possibilities. In this mode, one participant, the "host," fires up an application--word processor, graphics program, whatever. If the host allows, both participants can edit text, change graphics, or whatever the program allows. Each user needs a copy of the conferencing software, but the application being shared only has to be installed on the host computer. And changes to the files will also only be saved to the host's hard disk, but ProShare and Vistium provide an easy way to transfer files between computers.

The share software is not without its glitches. If the two computers sharing an application have different size monitors, the two users may not see exactly the same screen. The programs offer a way to compensate for this, but it can be disconcerting. If both users try to control the program at the same time, they end up just fighting over the cursor. The host can lock out the other user, but the problem is better resolved by simply agreeing over the phone to take turns.

Speed can also be an issue. When users are connected by a network or an ISDN phone line, screen updates are almost as fast as when not sharing. But using 14,400-bit-per-second modems over regular phone lines, it can take several seconds for shared screens to redraw.

Software-sharing technology is still in its infancy and could improve rapidly. Hewlett-Packard Co., which has not yet announced any products, is developing new communications protocols and technology that could allow high-speed sharing even between different types of computers, such as Macintoshes and IBM compatibles. That's in the future. But even today's desktop-conferencing software can make collaboration easier for folks who work in different locations.

      Product                          Cost    Available
      AT&T VISTIUM                    $200    Late Summer
      INTEL PROSHARE                  $220    Now
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