Linux Web Conferencing: Share And Share Alike?

More Web conferencing services are rolling out the red carpet for desktop Linux users -- but very few take them through the front door.

March 13, 2006

8 Min Read
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The Web conferencing market nowadays offers plenty of choices -- but relatively few surprises. With so many companies selling look-alike services, cost and reliability are now the most important factors for most customers so many companies selling similar services that nowadays few things stand out among them. Subscription price and connection reliability are the important factors for most customers, but interest in being able to use another operating system, including Linux, during a Web conference session is growing.

A Web conferencing application allows you to collaborate in real time with customers, co-workers, sales prospects, or anyone else with an Internet connection. Typically, the person hosting the meeting is able to share his computer desktop with other participants, allowing them to see and even to interact with documents, presentations, software demos, and the like. Many conferencing tools offer additional features. such as the ability to upload and share a Microsoft Office documents, an interactive "whiteboard" that is accessible to all of the participants, integration with instant messenger services, voice over IP (VoIP) support, and two-way videoconferencing .

Most companies use Web conferencing tools to hold virtual meetings, bringing together employees who work in different locations. The technology is also well-suited for e-learning programs, software demos, or as a tool for organizing collaborative projects. Until recently, vendors relied heavily on a key selling point: holding a Web conference is much cheaper than paying employees' airfare and travel expenses to attend on on-site meeting. As portable computers, broadband Internet access, and wireless networking become more prevalent, however, Web conferencing services simply make it convenient for people to meet online, no matter where they are located.

The vast majority of the Web conferencing solutions on the market today are still Windows-only products. Some developers, however, also provide some level support for other operating systems, including Linux. "We wanted to be able to help the Linux community. It is a community that originally had been left behind," says Brian Doe, Director of Customer Relations for Glance Networks, Inc., which sells Glance, a conferencing service that includes limited Linux support.Compatibility Via Java or Flash

Like most other proprietary Web conferencing applications with cross-platform capabilities, Glance was built using the Java programming language. Among other benefits, Java allows developers to create applications that users can run on any PC with a compatible Web browser, such as Mozilla Firefox; they do not have to download or install any additional software.This includes Marratech, which originated in 1995 as a Web conferencing technology research project written in Java and built on the Sun Solaris platform. Marratech's developers credit the Linux version of Sun's Java Virtual Machine (JVM), the software that enables the same Java application to run virtually unchanged on multiple platforms, for making it easy to develop a Linux version of the software.

"When Sun released a Linux version of the Java Virtual Machine, the move [for us] was quite natural, says Serge Lachapelle, Product Manager and co-founder of Marratech AB. "Furthermore, the Linux JVM offers high performance and very good compatibility with the Windows JVM."

In fact, many developers consider Java an especially good choice for building Linux applications, due to the availability of a fast, reliable Linux JVM. Glance Networks developers, for example, found that the Linux version of the company's Web conferencing software generally runs faster than its Windows counterpart.

"Linux and the other UNIXes [including] BSD and OS X really never gave us a problem. And that's because they've always had really good Java implementation. With Linux it just sort of worked," Doe said.

Java is not, however, the only option for building Linux-friendly Web conferencing software: Internet MegaMeeting, LLC elected to build its cross-platform Web conferencing service using Macromedia's (now Adobe Systems') Flash platform. Mega Meeting hosts its customers' Web conferencing sessions using Flash Communication Sever software, while the Flash Player provides a foundation for the company's front-end client application."Since Macromedia's Flash Player functions pretty much the same on Linux as it does on Windows, there really were no notable challenges our development team encountered in ensuring MegaMeeting works on Linux," says Andy Saman, a senior programmer for Internet MegaMeeting. "We have also not experienced any major issues installing the Flash Communication Server technology on Linux systems."A Wallflower At The Web Conferencing Party?

While Glance and MegaMeeting both officially support Linux with their Web conferencing products, both firms' Linux products lack one key feature: The ability to host a meeting or to share a Linux desktop with other meeting participants. In fact, neither product allows Linux users to share their desktops, although they are able to join meeting sessions and to view a host's Windows desktop.

In addition, some Glance users have reported being able to host under Linux by using WINE, a popular open-source implementation of the Microsoft Windows APIs that allow some Windows software to run on Linux and Unix systems, though Glance Networks does not officially endorse this approach. "For a variety of reasons, we can't technically support it. But I've heard of no issues with it. It's been excellent for a number of our customers," Doe says.

Marratech and another Java-enabled Web conferencing service, Elluminate Live!, do enable Linux users to host sessions and share their desktops.

Before users can take advantage of these more Linux-friendly solutions, however, they must deal with yet another challenge: a lack of up-to-date Linux drivers, or in some cases any drivers, for various types of PC multimedia hardware. Many webcam vendors, for example, provide little or no Linux support, contributing to what developers cite as the major factor setting back wider development of Linux-ready Web conferencing tools.In spite of such challenges, developers at the handful of Web conferencing companies which fully support Linux try their best to keep up. "There were a few challenges with implementing specific features that require native operating system support. Some core features will operate differently depending on the native support [like] with application sharing and video," says Rajeev Arora, vice president of strategy and business development for Elluminate, Inc..

"The Linux world includes many distributions," says Marratech's Lachapelle. "Building software for Linux means having to focus on a few distributions for testing and quality assurance. Choosing what distribution to support is a challenge, as there is no 'universal' system.

"The desktop technologies in Linux have changed quickly and are still on a steep evolution curve," he added. "Some Linux distributions tend to drop older technologies very quickly, making it challenging as we need to keep up with these changes instead of focusing on other improvements."An Academic Solution

These types of problems are an especially serious concern for companies in the Web conferencing market, where reliability is usually a make-or-break issue. Of course, this is an issue that applies to other platforms as well: Glance Networks, for example, purposely does not offer a voice-chat feature, which according to Doe has proved to be an unnecessary, rarely used feature in its competitors' products.

Besides eliminating a potential customer-support issue, he said, this less-is-more approach also reduces Glance's bandwidth requirements: "The greatest concern in this industry is ensuring the highest connection rate possible. So anything you can do to reduce those [bandwidth] needs increases that success rate,"In the end, however, Glance's decision not to support core features such as conference hosting or desktop sharing in its Linux software is simply a matter of supply and demand. According to Doe, the company's target market segments -- online software sales, demonstrations, and training -- are even less likely than usual to create enough demand to justify a full-scale Linux development effort.

Yet Doe also said that Linux-friendly Web conferencing products might generate quite a bit more interest in other market segments, such as online engineering, research, and collaborative software development. He may be right: According to Lachapelle, Marratech has found strong demand for a Web conferencing product featuring full Linux support among colleges and universities -- where, as he termed it, "geographically distributed groups with a strong need for collaborating on research projects are omnipresent." As a result of Marratech's Linux-based conference hosting and desktop sharing capabilities, he said, the company has built a strong presence in the higher education market.

Indeed, despite the relatively small size of the desktop Linux market, some Web conferencing companies cite sound business reasons for providing at least some level of Linux support. "Although this market is not as large as Windows or Mac, it is one we feel is growing and needs to be supported," said Dan Richmond, CEO and founder of Internet MegaMeeting. "Whether participants are on Windows, Mac or Linux-based machines, more participants into meetings means more customers. This results in increased sales, increased customer service and increased productivity across the board."More Linux Support Brings More Customers

If Marratech's experience shows the potential upside for Linux-friendly Web conferencing products -- and by extension, for other types of business software featuring desktop Linux support -- another group's experiences illustrate the potential risks. Workspot, a Java-based Web conferencing package built specifically for the desktop Linux platform, was started back in 1999 as a non-profit software development effort. Workspot, which was subsequently released on other platforms besides Linux, is a relatively mature and thoroughly-tested product that has been around longer than many of its competitors.

Today, however, Workspot is not under active development, and a hosted version of the product is closed to the public due to a lack of corporate sponsorship or other sources of financial support. "Big companies, without any Linux product, shut us out of deals with other big companies. We don't even have enough money to keep working machines anymore, despite often massive interest in our project," claims Greg Bryant, the director of Workspot. "If anyone is able to support our non-profit efforts, please contact us. We have the open source conferencing system, but we need help."0

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