Posted on May 10, 2007
Filed Under (Tools) by jennifer

Contemporary work life often puts collaborators in different cities, time zones, or even different countries. Try as we might to use email, IM, or other conventional means of sharing, when it comes to working on documents, spreadsheets or presentations, we all eventually reach a point where it would be a lot more efficient if all parties could actually see the darn thing in real time. Trouble is, it’s often way too hard to make this happen easily, especially if some of the collaborators are technically challenged.

Groupware tools for screen sharing have been around since the dial-up days, but for the average, corporate or SOHO user, there are many many hoops to jump through to make these tools work quickly, easily, and without significant cost, or technical configuration.

While GoToMyPC, WebEx, Raindance, and a zillion competitors are out there everywhere touting their ease of use, there is typically significant costs associated with these applications.

At my company, TPC, we have a corporate account with Infinite Conferencing, which has a web conferencing component. Their service is charged at 7.5 cents per minute per connection. If you have multiple people watching for more than a few minutes, it starts to add up.

Several months ago, in search of something that could be easily used on the fly, with limited or no cost, I ran across a service called CrossLoop. CrossLoop is based on VNC (Virtual Network Computing), an open source screen-sharing protocol that has been  available for 10+ years, with many great fully-featured variations. (We like UltraVNC.) The problem with VNC, however, is how it handles firewalls and routers. (Yes, we now have those things at home.) While one can typically work around this, this is not something you can easily walk your mother-in-law through.

CrossLoop’s service elegantly gets rid of the firewall problem by acting as a “connector” service.

The first time you want to do a conference, the host (the person whose screen will be shared), and the attendees go to CrossLoop’s website and download a simple applet (PCs only). On subsequent sessions, you will not have to go through this step. Once the application is installed on each of the respective computers, the host launches his version of the app and announces to the attendees the access code that CrossLoop automatically generates (over the phone, via email, or IM). The host presses “Connect” to activate the session. Then the attendees all put in the access code and press connect. Within seconds, the remote attendees will all be seeing the host’s screen on their own computers. Additionally, they can take control of the host.

CrossLoop’s VNC implementation is pretty stripped down (e.g., no file exchange); however, on a broadband connection it is quick with little latency.

This morning I used CrossLoop to help my mother-in-law figure out how to scan a multi-page document on scanning software I’ve never used before (220 miles away). I also worked on a profit/loss projection spreadsheet that was on my business coach’s desktop (3 miles away).

Amazingly enough, CrossLoop is truly free (not trialware or shareware). This one is an absolute must for your toolkit.

[Posted by Kenny Schiff]

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