Q. Dr Paul - I want to use FirstClass in my off-campus teaching, but the local Web guru tells me that FirstClass is obsolete since it does not support the Web, and that I should use Web-conferencing. What does he mean and is he right? Harassed of Helsinki
A. Dear Harassed - I know that many people in Scandinavia use FirstClass, but some like you are getting concerned about whether it is still a good idea to use it.
It is true that FirstClass does not support the Web, and that the Web is getting more and more popular. However, one should use the tools that are most fit for the purpose. In my experience, FirstClass is still the best conferencing system there is for teaching, in terms of availability, ease of use, cost, ease of support and integration with the Internet. In the past it is true that it was not possible to use FirstClass over the Internet, but this problem was fixed over a year ago, and hundreds of our students now use it successfully over the Internet.
There are other conferencing systems such as Lotus Notes, but on the whole they do not score as well as FirstClass in terms of the criteria I mentioned above. Some of the alleged rivals to FirstClass do not exist yet. In particular, many people say that Microsoft will be offering an enhancement (Microsoft Exchange) to Microsoft Mail that will offer computer conferencing. This is undoubtedly true, but the product is not shipping yet and will no doubt take some time to settle down before one could be sure of using it successfully. I also think that FirstClass has set a new paradigm for conferencing systems so that future systems such as Microsoft will develop will look rather similar - thus investment in FirstClass is still a good thing even if one were to change to another system later.
There is much enthusiasm for conferencing systems which can be accessed from a Web browser such as Netscape. These can be built in two ways, either directly out of Web browsers and servers, or by linking an existing conferencing system to the Web.
The first approach is still in a very "early days" era. I have looked at many such systems that claim to offer such support and on the whole, their interfaces are very crude and their functionality much simpler than FirstClass. In part this is due to the current limited state of the HTML language that drives the Web, and things will improve with new releases of this - one can get some idea of how things are going if one looks at the beta versions of Netscape 2.0. However, developments in this area are still at an early stage. An interesting one is WEST (Web Educational Support Tools) developed at University College Dublin.
The second approach is perhaps more likely to generate useful results earlier. While FirstClass does not yet support Web access, its rival CAUCUS has just announced Web access. I have looked at this interface and it is not bad, but of course let down by the current primitive state of Web interfaces, which are not suited yet to the multi-window many-message aspects that "industrial- strength" conferencing requires. Netscape themselves have signed an agreement with Collabra, and that may generate, in time, an interesting product.
All of these Web interfaces are in an early stage. For the next year or two, it is still a wise move to choose FirstClass. As in all parts of the software industry, better products are round the corner, but it is rarely a wise strategy to do nothing while waiting for them.