Windows Meeting Space is worthy of conversation

Though no substitute for whiteboarding, Vista's collaboration platform performs some nifty tricks

Living with Vista is an ongoing project, rife with application incompatibilities and instances of people checking out my Mac in Starbucks, then shooting me dirty looks when they spy the Vista logo. Hey, I like Office 2007, and Parallels rules, so back off. But there's more to Vista than the new Office. Live there for a while and you'll bump into new features frequently.

[ View the Windows Meeting Space slideshow ]

One I ignored until just recently was Windows Meeting Space. This is one of the many new collaboration tools popping out of Redmond like Pez on a playground. We'd been using Groove up to now because I like doing my Austin Powers impression, but a contractor didn't have that installed and swore that the Windows Meeting bundled with Vista was enough for our purposes. So armed with my phone, a shot of Knob Creek, and my Groove Server as backup, I gave it a try.

First, the basics: This isn't a substitute for videoconferencing or shared whiteboards (though the use of Skype's video client or iChat video in conjunction with Meeting Space can be pretty durn cool). With Meeting Space, you can share more than documents and applications with another user; you can even share their desktop.

A Meeting Space session runs without the need for a server, unlike NetMeeting. It can run over any Ethernet connection -- even an ad hoc PC-to-PC Wi-Fi connection. We didn't try it using Bluetooth or IR, and I can't find supporting docs for either scenario, so until I do, this is Ethernet-only.

And I'm not just gabbing about physical media. Meeting Space is not an Internet application. It's meant for folks on the same network and uses its own discovery methods (Meeting Space loves it when everyone is on the same Active Directory tree, but doesn't require it).

At the height of our Meeting Space fest, we had 4 users collaborating simultaneously, though this is by no means a hard limit. However, since we saw some minor performance hiccups with even this small band, I doubt an effective load beyond 8 or 10 users is feasible. The only real downside is that everyone must be running some form of Windows Vista. Windows XP, even using NetMeeting, can't connect to Meeting Space.

Configuring Meeting Space isn't hard. We didn't require any firewall changes to make it happen, but that's because the Windows Meeting Space and Peer to Peer Collaboration Foundation exceptions were already checked. Simply activating the program off the Accessories menu is enough. Get past the ubiquitous User Account Control prompt and you can start setting up meeting connections in a screen titled Set Up People Near Me.

Once you've started Meeting Space and identified your meeting's attendees, you're presented with the Meeting Space intro screen. This lets you name your meeting and assign a password, which others can use to log in. Once inside, you're on the working screen. This has a large work area on the left where you can share documents, applications, or someone's entire desktop. On the right, you have a list of attendees and a small document library, called Handouts. And yes, you can add Handouts during the session.

Meeting Space has a little IM-style note-sender built in to let attendees communicate, but we had much more success talking on the phone or running a video chat next to Meeting Space using Skype, iChat, or Messenger clients. Curmudgeonly IT admins can even control Meeting Space access via Group Policy, though given Vista's slower-than-expected take-up in the enterprise, I'd wonder about turning off such a useful feature.

Then again, some might answer that question with that venerable Microsoft bane: security. After all, activating Meeting Space does give users access to each other's desktop. But unless someone finds an open exploit, this isn't like some hacker doing an under-the-radar Bluetooth connection. Services need to be enabled to make Meeting Space work, and more important, all attendees need to log on using self-imposed screen names and passwords. So unless Microsoft inexplicably built a supersecret credential-less Meeting Space access engine that can run without local knowledge, I think we're safe.

Then again, it's Microsoft ...