Web conferencing software is invoked by all participants in a web meeting. Some technologies include software and functionality that differs for presenters and attendees. Software may run as a web browser application (often relying on Adobe Flash, Java, or WebRTC to provide the operational platform). Other web conferencing technologies require download and installation of software on each participant's computer, which is invoked as a local application. Many web conferencing vendors provide the central connectivity and provisioning of meeting "ports" or "seats" as a hosted web service, while others allow the web conference host to install and run the software on its own local servers. Another installation option from certain vendors allows for use of a proprietary computer appliance that is installed at the hosting company's physical location.
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In 1996, PlaceWare was founded as a spinoff from Xerox PARC. In November of that year, PlaceWare Auditorium was described in a public talk at Stanford University as allowing "one or more people to give an interactive, online, multimedia presentation via the Web to hundreds or thousands of simultaneous attendees; the presentation can include slides (made in PowerPoint or any GIF-image editor), live annotation on the slide images, real-time polls of the audience, live audio from the presenter and those asking questions, private text and audio conversations in the auditorium's "rows", and other features." PlaceWare Auditorium was formally announced in March 1997 at a price of $150 per simultaneous user.
Web conferencing may be used as an umbrella term for various types of online collaborative services including web seminars ("webinars"), webcasts, and peer-level web meetings. It may also be used in a more narrow sense to refer only to the peer-level web meeting context, in an attempt to disambiguate it from the other types of collaborative sessions. Terminology related to these technologies is inexact, and no generally agreed upon source or standards organization exists to provide an established usage reference.
Real-time text chat facilities such as IRC appeared in the late 1980s. Web-based chat and instant messaging software appeared in the mid-1990s. The PLATO computer learning system allowed students to collaborate on networked computers to accomplish learning tasks as early as the 1960s, but the early networking was not accomplished via the World Wide Web and PLATO's collaborative goals were not consistent with the presenter-audience dynamic typical of web conferencing systems. PLATO II, in 1961, featured two users at once.