I’m Tipping My Hat To You, Microsoft NetMeeting

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As Windows XP races toward the end of its lifecycle, it spells the end for a few neglected Microsoft products that saw their last gasp for air when Vista landed globally in 2007. Microsoft NetMeeting is one of them, a conferencing application that was – in my experience – years before its time.

As a youngster growing up in a remote part of Britain with a weak 56K dial-up connection, a Windows PC and friends scattered all over the country (and eventually world), apps like MSN Messenger, Roger Wilco and Microsoft NetMeeting occupied too much of my time. I can’t provide a definitive answer as to why repurposing business tools like NetMeeting was so much fun, but I can reflect on it in an age that will never know the joys of direct dialling an IP address.

I’m tipping my hat to you, Microsoft NetMeeting, and I don’t even wear a hat.

Online Conferencing In The 90’s

In the 1990’s, much of the world was still connecting to the Internet and browsing the World Wide Web using dial-up Internet connections. If you’re genuinely too young to remember such a connection then it can be summed up as being roughly five times slower than the speed you get when your ISP throttles you (256kbps) with all the joys of random disconnects, periods of complete inactivity and “Dad, did you pick up the phone?”.

At this time, Microsoft dominated the instant messaging space with its MSN Messenger IM service, later known as MSN Messenger Service and Windows Live Messenger amongst others. It was as simple as you like, with group chats considered innovative (and chaotic) in a time when IRC was king of the “chatroom” sphere.

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Instant messaging was something altogether different though, and at the time quite a primitive one too. Changing font, text colour, sticking in some primitive emoticons and sending a picture or two was the order of the day – this was before voice chat, webcams and collaboration were commonplace.

That’s exactly where NetMeeting came in. If you were a bored teenager whose free time consisted of dodging homework, playing games like Counter-Strike and messing around on Messenger, NetMeeting offered immeasurably more fun than basic IM. I must add here, that this is not just an article about personal experience and the tools offered by NetMeeting were also quite attractive to those who used the Internet for serious business too.

The business sphere had always been a place of innovation when it came to conferencing solutions, with phone conferences being popular well into the early (and in some instances late) 2000’s. NetMeeting on Windows 95, which was bundled with later versions of Internet Explorer 3, introduced a large percentage of people to voice and video communication with people from every corner of the world.

Business & Pleasure

For me, the first time I used NetMeeting was when the software already felt dated. By this I mean it was never particularly attractive to look at (unlike say the latest version of MSN Messenger or a customised version of the legendary mIRC) and was a good example of function over form. There was no centralised server for users to connect to, no username or login required and instead the conferencing took place via the direct dialling of an IP address or using a public Internet Locator Server (ILS) which acted as a directory.

For those of us that didn’t use an ILS, this posed a problem – knowing the other party’s IP address in an age of dial-up where IP addresses changed each and every time you connected to the Internet. This meant you actually already needed to be in communication with the host before you connected, and for this MSN Messenger was mandatory.

Ideally though, NetMeeting would have been a pre-arranged affair and for business users an ILS took much of the pain out of it. If you were in a swanky office, you probably had a leased line, ISDN, early DSL or cable connection with a static IP address which would have helped considerably.

The five pillars of awesome contained within NetMeeting were:

  • Text chat that was as basic as it could get, making Messenger look advanced for the time but not without its uses.
  • Voice chat with optional video, something early versions of MSN Messenger did not include. Video would appear in a small window beneath the address bar, the quality was terrible and freezing was a common occurrence but it was still impressive at the time.
  • Whiteboard mode which provided endless hours of fun to bored teenagers, and offered business users a virtual whiteboard onto which images could be pasted, lines could be drawn and text could be added. Hilarity ensued, impromptu games of Pictionary occurred and strategies were formulated (probably).
  • Application and desktop sharing with remote access, something that is now big business was completely free and available at a time when Windows was merely a shell for DOS. Perfect for… sharing your desktop, I guess.
  • File transfers, though from memory this did not work particularly well and Messenger soon added the functionality which was exploited on a massive scale and used to spread worms with incredible success.

None of these things are impressive any more. All are taken for granted, all work pretty much flawlessly via their respective protocols and some are money makers for companies like LogMeIn, Skype and Zynga (Draw Something, anyone?).

Hasta La Vista, Baby!

Windows XP was the last version of Windows to be initially compatible with NetMeeting, accessible by typing “conf” into the Start menu’s Run dialogue box. This was not surprising, as towards the end of Windows XP’s time as Microsoft’s flagship operating system, bigger, better and fancier versions of Messenger began to lean on and eventually surpass NetMeeting in terms of functionality. Chatting via text, transferring files and multi-user conversations were just easier when a centralised server handled user availability.

When Vista landed without NetMeeting, Microsoft had to release a hotfix and provide a download link to the software as there were still a lot of individuals who relied on it. Windows 7’s “XP Mode” restores NetMeeting compatibility but there’s so many better options available now. Microsoft released a slew of replacements including Windows Meeting Space and Office Live Meeting but other protocols began taking over.

The boom in the popularity of Skype, which included voice and text chat as well as the ability to call phone numbers for next to nothing as well as file transfers challenged MSN Messenger to the throne and the noun Skype soon began to be used as a verb (which shows no signs of abating – when was the last time you “Skyped” someone?). Slowly but surely the software of yore was replaced with newer, and better software as more developers began developing excellent alternatives like TeamSpeak, Ventrilo, Google Talk and eventually Facebook’s chat protocol.

These days we’ve got WhatsApp messenger and Twitter for short messages on the go, Apple’s proprietary iMessage protocol closing the gap between desktop and mobile messaging and Google+ Hangouts enabling screen sharing and video chat with nothing but a web browser. The days of NetMeeting and such software are over.

Goodnight, Sweet Prince

And so I bring this article to a close with a genuine pang of sadness for those early years of Internet tomfoolery, PCI cards, loud dial-up modems and erratic web standards. If you miss the old MSN alerts as much as I do and are now so used to remote desktops, screen sharing and multi-user webcam chats that it bores you then do add your own nuggets of nostalgia in the comments below.

Thanks Microsoft NetMeeting, you and your cohorts will always have a special place in my heart.

Image Credit: 56K Modem (Kaluso FX)

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