The internet has changed, and is continuing to change, how we collaborate. It has been possible over the last few years to stream video, share desktops, give remote presentations, and more over the web. But the cost was not insignificant. Typically, full-featured services cost of the order of $20,000 per year. Plus, most installations required the use of the telephone for the audio. Long distance collaboration for lengthy sessions becomes costly.
Enter Skype (www.skype.com). This is a FREE internet-based 'phone' that permits free computer-to-computer phone calls. If the recipient of your Skype call is a traditional telephone, the long distance charge world-side is about 2 cents per minute. Conference calls up to 5 computers are free. Skype is a free download and is very easy to set up. Buy a cheap headset with a microphone from your local electronics store and you are in business. Audio quality is exceptional. So that is the audio part solved for one-to-one and one-to-few audio collaboration over the miles.
Then came a company called Webdialogs (www.webdialogs.com) who offers a Skype plug-in called Unyte (www.unyte.net) that permits desktop sharing. It too is free for the base software that permits others to see your desktop. It is easy to setup and use. If I wish to collaborate with a student, colleague or anyone at a distance, I call the person via Skype, and invite him or her via a Chat message to view my desktop. The person simply clicks on the link in the chat message and within a few seconds, the person sees my desktop in a browser window on his or her local machine. I can control what parts of the desktop the remote person sees. For a nominal cost, Unyte+ permits the user to control my application. Any application (a Word document, a Powerpoint presentation, an image, a movie, a whiteboard, whatever) is sharable. Collaborative writing anyone? Additional seats are inexpensive, of the order of $20/seat/year.
Want a video link? Want someone to join in on a group discussion? No sweat. Webcams (web cameras) are inexpensive devices that you can add to your computer. Open a webcam window on your desktop and you will see whatever the camera is pointing at. Share that window via Unyte and now the colleague can see your face, or a do-hickey that you are working on, or whatever. Use a set of speakers and an area microphone instead of a headset and the group (at either end of the conversation) can see, hear and speak.
Few-to-few collaborations are now dirt cheap. Couple this with an internet equipped classroom or boardroom and you can see (and hear) the possibilities. Will it replace face-to face meetings? No. But many of our meetings don't need the intimacy of face-to-face. Yes, the raised eyebrow speaks volumes but web-based collaboration permits us to have meaningful collaborations cheaply and conveniently. The savings on travel, time, the environment, lives saved on the highway, etc. are potentially huge. And if the alternative is to not meet at all, then the gain is undeniable.
You can, of course, even record the sessions using BB Flashback or similar software. Now we are getting pretty high readings on the geek-o-meter. But it is almost as easy as a telephone, and certainly easier than programming a VCR. You really do not have to be a geek to make this happen.
One other point: like email vs. a direct conversation, the dynamics are different. It is hard to express emotion accurately in an email. But email levels the playing field for the slower, more careful thinker. Email forces a more reasoned discussion. So there are advantages and disadvantages of email and direct conversation. The same is true for web collaboration and direct meetings.
Get Skype, a headset and try it out. Then get Unyte and start web-collaborating.
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