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I just returned from a weeklong meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which just held its 77th meeting in Anaheim, California. I've been going to these meetings on and off since 1996 and it is interesting to me how communications during the meetings have changed since I first got involved. The IETF is the standards group which has devised most of the commonly used Internet protocol standards such as HTTP for the web, SMTP for email, TCP-IP for transport and many others.
So, how does an Internet standards group like the IETF communicate during its meetings? In the Nineties, it was mostly via email. Some meeting information would be posted on the web - and often not - and if you weren't attending in person, the next communication you would see might be an email out to a mailing list for a particular working group which included draft minutes. There were some large meetings that used a multicast protocol called the MBONE, but this was mostly of use to academics and research labs, not to the typical business user.
The first big breakthrough for more plentiful communication came when WiFi broke out within the IETF meetings during the years 1999-2000. Up until then, all IP connections at the meeting were hard wired via Ethernet. But Wifi was made widely available by renting network cards for laptops and setting up a few access points. Instantly, the meeting dynamics changed. Now, attendees and non-attendees could exchange email in real time about the meetings - a kind of early instant messaging. This kind of cross talk quickly became very popular and universal WiFi access became a "must have" for IETF meetings from that point forward.
By about 2002, instant messaging (IM) had become popular as one of the new Internet applications and the IETF began working on standards related to IM, creating two approaches: Simple, designed to work over SIP and XMPP, which evolved from the Jabber community. Many IETF long time attendees jumped on the Jabber bandwagon and very soon, Jabber clients became a new way of participating at meetings. Jabber supports buddy lists, instant messaging and chat rooms, so the IETF began to set up Jabber chat rooms for all meetings, a practice that continues to this day.
Starting in about 2005, the IETF also began to stream audio versions of its meeting for the benefit of remote participants. So between the mailing lists, Jabber chat rooms and audio streaming, remote people could now participate in the meetings in real time through multiple tools. An article talking about more this can be found in the IETF Journal from May 2007.
Now, let's fast forward to this latest meeting in March 2010. All of the real time communication technologies available since 2005 are now still in use. At this meeting, a few sessions were also now accessible via WebEx web conferences, to enable sharing of documents and audio conferencing.
And now you can also add social media to the list, in the form of Twitter. I've only recently started using Twitter and tools like blogs or social networks are still the most common forms of social media for many users. But I did a search on IETF on Twitter during this meeting and found quite a few comments being posted, notably using the posting code #IETF77. For example, there was a fascinating presentation on Internet User Privacy which went on during the conference, so I did a tweet to that effect on Thursday evening including the web address for the presentation and voila, users monitoring #IETF77 on Twitter could click on the embedded link and see the presentation for themselves. Just minutes later, another Twitter user did a re-tweet of my post, helping to spread it around the 'Net.
So, does the IETF use real time communications? Yes, and lots of it. If you really want to track what's happening in real time at an IETF meeting and you're offsite, you can do it. In turn, there's ample opportunity for attendees to chat amongst themselves and with remote people using the tool of their choice, whether it is email, Jabber chat rooms or Twitter.