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May 1999

Microsoft NetMeeting 3.0 Preview
Microsoft Corp.
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-6399
Ph: 425-882-8080
Web site: www.microsoft.com

Price: Free.

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4.5
Features: 4.75
GUI: 5
Overall: A

With early versions of Windows came the concept of applets - small but functional teaser programs that were intended to give new buyers a taste of the operating system's promise. The applets became more like full-bore applications in subsequent versions of Windows 3.x and Windows 9x. One such example was NetMeeting versions 2.0, 2.1 and 2.11. NetMeeting was and is a great application - it is free, and it offers H.323 compatibility, white boarding, text chats, audio, video, even application and file sharing - but it has drawbacks. For example, meetings were not password-protected. The GUI took up much of our desktop space. Chat messages were not delivered until users pressed enter, as opposed to being real time. Unfortunately, these kinds of small issues, and version 2.x's favorite son status among hobbyists and pornographers, have prevented the application from real success in the business world.

NetMeeting 3.0, just released in beta, not only fixes many of those concerns, it also takes on its latest teaser role: It showcases the potential of TAPI 3.0 and Windows 2000, providing more security, a redesigned GUI, and better gatekeeper/Internet telephony functionality. Version 3.0 also features remote desktop sharing, which was previously only available in software like pcANYWHERE or Remotely Possible. Finally, version 3.0 exploits many of the Exchange directory and address book features, plus improved application sharing efficiency and functionality.

Installing NetMeeting 3.0 is easy, whether you're an individual consumer or the MIS director of a large organization. On Windows 98, the entire program installed in just a few minutes, even while we had several resource-hogging applications open, and it required just one reboot. It did require re-tuning of our multimedia equipment and re-entering of the user's personal information, but at least the information from the previous install was listed as the default. All we had to do was click the "next" button a few times and reboot, and it worked fine. Considering that our copy wasn't even a beta version yet, and considering that we installed the program on several PCs of varying component speeds, it's impressive that the installation was so smooth.

NetMeeting is one of those programs that ships only with online help, a few readme files, and a consumer-oriented Web site. Like the installation, the online help files were impressive for a program that was in pre-beta - we only found a handful of broken hyperlinks (the help file is in Active Desktop mode) and we found a few pages that wouldn't print. We were equally impressed with the "what's new" file, which covers most new features in detail. Documentation that didn't yet exist as of our deadline includes anything on the Microsoft Web site (there wasn't even a mention of version 3.0 yet) as well as anything about an SDK. As with most Microsoft applications that are available for resale, we expect a flood of two-inch-thick developers' and users' manuals to arrive at bookstores long before the final version debuts.

The most tangible new feature about NetMeeting is its redesigned GUI. The 2.x GUI was large, taking up one-half to three-quarters of our screen, depending on the display resolution. The new GUI, even when maximized, used only about one-eighth of a 15" monitor at 1,152 by 864 pixels. The interface is designed for minimalists: Rather than defaulting to a very large screen for Microsoft-sponsored directories, the GUI opens with your choice of a dial pad or a local video window near the top (under the pull-down menus), and dial, hang-up, and address book icons in the top right. Beneath these items are icons for play/pause, picture-in-picture, and volume. Beneath that is a meeting participants' listing. On the bottom are icons for application sharing, text chat, white boarding, and file sharing, directly on top of a status bar.

Things we like about the new GUI include the local video/dial pad toggle, the picture-in-picture option, and the view options for compact, data-only, and always on top. Besides some minor issues discussed below in the "Room for Improvement" section, our only major concern with the new GUI is that is can't be resized - it's either minimized or maximized, and that's it. Pop-up GUIs are the exceptions here. These are the screens that appear when users choose individual features, like file transfer, etc. These screens can be resized, but only to a certain point.

As explained in the "what's new" file, other new features are divided into four categories. These include directories/address lists, security, application sharing, and remote desktop sharing. There is also a fifth category, miscellaneous, that should be documented as well.

Using a directory server and address lists, users can find other users through their personal Exchange-based address books and distribution lists, whether they are from other directory servers or from the Internet. As with programs like Outlook, distribution lists are divided into global and personal sections. There is also a distinction made between generic directory servers and Microsoft Complete Internet Conferencing: The first is simply a Microsoft-maintained list of places to find people, whereas the latter is actually a Microsoft-maintained directory.

Another important new feature is the gateway and gatekeeper settings. While version 2.x offered only a taste of these options, version 3.0 offers fields for a gatekeeper name, account name, and telephone number, plus fields for a proxy server and gateway-to-telephone/videoconferencing systems. This simple interface, hidden under Tools/Options/Calling/Advanced, could be just what NetMeeting needs to be the killer application for bringing VoIP to the mainstream.

Security is also a major improvement. At the basic level, all calls can be secure or non-secure, which is the default setting. Options for secure calls include data encryption, certificate authentication, and password protection, but in secure calls, the audio and video options are disabled. In meetings, all calls are either secure or non-secure; calls between meeting participants can not be of different types. Another security option that's unique to meetings is the host's ability to limit what features participants can enact. For example, meeting hosts can disable the right of anyone but themselves to begin any of the six main features (application sharing, text chat, audio, white boarding, file sharing, and video), and hosts can make themselves the only participant who can invite or accept others into the meeting. Hosts can also enable meeting names and - finally - meeting passwords.

Application sharing provides the ability to give control of a program to callers who don't have that program on their computer. As with version 2.x, only one user can control an application at a time, and if "Controllable" appears in the title bar of the shared application, then callers know that the application is available for them to control. Other application sharing features include the ability to "unshare" specific programs or to "unshare" all programs, a feature for automatically accepting control requests or for requiring manual acceptance, and a do-not-disturb feature for temporarily disabling non-host control without actually switching the feature off. Users who have been granted control by the host can pass control to other users, as long as they are also using version 3.0, and the host can take control again at any time.

Remote desktop sharing is a powerful new feature which, when perfected, could make pcANYWHERE and Remotely Possible unnecessary. Users activate the feature, then close NetMeeting - the feature doesn't work if NetMeeting is open. Remote sharing also only works with secure calls, and there is password protection. Microsoft correctly recommends that the shared computer be identified by its name and not by its IP address, because an IP address in the wrong hands is more dangerous than just a computer name.

Finally, other interesting features include:

  • A separate white boarding feature for calls to users of earlier NetMeeting versions.
  • Speed-dial with an option to save shortcuts on the desktop.
  • Do-not-disturb feature.
  • Automatic and manual silence detection controls.
  • Nine vocoder options including common G.723.1, L&H CELP/SBC, u-Law,/a-Law, and Microsoft PCM.
  • Small, medium, and large send video sizes.
  • 32-increment slide control for faster or better video quality.
  • More video camera compatibility and properties options.

The advanced meeting security, the new remote desktop sharing, and the better GUI are the most valuable new features. NetMeeting was a program that we think was worth paying for as early as version 2.0; now, version 3.0 is even more valuable. The fact that Microsoft still gives it away for free even though it's worth paying for (and the fact that it's evolved from an applet into a real application bundled with the operating system), shows something about the best of what's possible from Redmond.

Other operational issues that are notable include the icons/buttons, which all work in the Active Desktop/Web style. This style is especially notable when the dial pad is switched on: As you move the mouse cursor across the dial pad, the buttons go into a three-dimensional shadow mode with a yellow undertone, which creates a visual effect similar to a telephone's buttons that are back-lit for nighttime use.

Overall, the entire application is easy to use - sometimes it's hard to believe that it comes from the same people who created NT Server. All menus are intuitively placed, there is virtually no clutter, there are ToolTips (pop-up button help), and the new GUI bears a much closer resemblance to other Internet telephones (like WebPhone, for example) than it previously did. We would like to be able to resize, invert, and generally manipulate the picture-in-picture windows, features that we're already used to on televisions and better videoconferencing systems. Particularly for people who've used version 2.1, learning version 3.0 will take all of 20 minutes. We also liked the simplicity of the file transfer option. We were impressed with how fast this feature works.

As we mentioned, many minor items could use improvement. The local video/dial pad window should have icon or button toggle directly from the main GUI. There is no way to block calls from specific users or to grant rules-based, user-specific control or application/file sharing: These features are on for everyone or off for everyone and fixing that would be a huge improvement. There's still no way to share applications without opening them first. This can be circumvented by sharing the Windows Explorer, but we think that a customizable hyperlink to the Start menu directly from the Share menu would be invaluable. Finally, there is not as much backward-compatibility as there could be, as many of the in-meeting options (like feature-specific blocking by the host) only work with other users of version 3.0.

NetMeeting 3.0, despite minor issues and some areas where it can still be improved, is an extremely valuable upgrade from any of the previous versions. There are even more features that Microsoft engineers say will be included as a part of Windows 2000 when it debuts - for example, more responsive video, better audio quality, more video camera drivers, extensive help files, and better organized Internet-based directories. Most importantly, the debut of TAPI 3.0 and Windows 2000 features like Active Dialer can turn NetMeeting into a truly universal, truly integrated product, much in the same way that Microsoft says Internet Explorer is becoming more of a Windows feature than a separate product line. This is a great product in spite of its flaws. It shows real innovation and promise for the near future and it's still free. Clearly, it represents all of the good things about Microsoft, and we're proud to bestow upon it our Editors' Choice award.

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