Last week I looked up "Web Conferencing" on Wikipedia. I was interested in what the article would list as the first web conferencing technology. I found a page in desperate need of expansion and updating. So I made some edits, starting with a little bit of disambiguation in the introduction and then concentrating on the History section. There is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in the section on Features, which I haven't touched yet.
In researching the early history of web conferencing, I ran up against several challenges. Company names and product names changed, businesses and technologies were acquired by other companies, and products themselves changed focus and capabilities over time. I only listed properly sourced and cited historical records - often taken from the press release announcements made at the time. Of course this leads to additional confusion since the announcement date of a product may be many months before general availability.
Trying to pin down the first web conferencing product is a fuzzy goal. After all, video phones were demonstrated as early as 1927 (surprised, aren't you?) I ignored anything not carried over the public internet and I gave short shrift to the early years of the PLATO collaborative learning system, which I don't think counts as web conferencing - although I'm willing to listen to opposing arguments.
For my money, the honor goes to CU-SeeMe as implemented in the Global Schoolhouse project from Global SchoolNet. GlobalSchoolhouse.org was launched as a true web site in 1993. Participating schools could join two-way audio/video conferences over the internet (using Macintosh only… The Windows version came later). Click here to see a fascinating short news report showing the system in use, circa 1993.
The GlobalSchoolhouse/CU-SeeMe implementation may not satisfy some purists. I haven't found details on whether the conferencing relied on point-to-point networking or private networking, which may not be in the spirit of general use "web" conferencing. And it was certainly restricted to schools in the Global SchoolNet program.
The first general-use collaboration product I found a reference to was LiveShare Plus from PictureTel. It was announced in May 1995 for Windows-based PCs. The press release mentions application sharing, remote control of a participant's PC, shared whiteboard markup, file transfer, and text messaging. PictureTel had a partner agreement with Microsoft and the LiveShare Plus technology found its way into NetMeeting, which was included as part of Internet Explorer 3.0 in May 1996. By this point, we are firmly in the realm of public-access web conferencing, and all subsequent offerings are variations on a theme.
The first documentation of a web-enabled software product intended for "one-to-many" or "few-to-many" presentations (what we would now categorize as webinars) comes from PlaceWare (which later was acquired by Microsoft and relabeled as Live Meeting). In November 1996, a software architect from PlaceWare gave a talk at Stanford University, mentioning PlaceWare Auditorium, "which allows one or more people to give an interactive, online, multimedia presentation via the Web to hundreds or thousands of simultaneous attendees."
You can read about the next wave of web conferencing history on the Wikipedia page. This includes such well-known names as WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Adobe Connect -- all of which came to their present state through a series of name changes and acquisitions.
Editing Wikipedia is tedious and sometimes non-intuitive in its markup requirements. If you are up to the challenge, the Web Conferencing article still needs help. If you don't want to work on it yourself, send me your suggested edits and citations and I will add them as I have time.