WebEx Communications Inc. will introduce several enhancements Thursday to Meeting Center, its service for conducting meetings over the Internet using a telephone and a PC with a Web browser.

Users can now launch a WebEx meeting from within a business application or document and share its contents with other participants. The service has also been tightly coupled with Microsoft Outlook so that users can verify a participant’s availability and send them an invitation to join a meeting, said Praful Shah, WebEx vice-president of strategic communications.

Other enhancements include support for multipoint video, which lets participants with a webcam display their image during a conference. The service also now supports full-screen video, intended primarily for users at work with a T-1 connection or faster, Shah said.

The new features make the upgrade a substantial one and should be beneficial to users, said David Alexander, an industry manager with Frost & Sullivan. Support for multipoint video makes the service “look more like a true virtual conference environment,” he said.

“That’s where (all the Web conferencing providers) want to get to – the true convergence of audio, video and data,” he said.

WebEx leads the crowded field of Web conferencing providers, in terms of both number of users and the “bells and whistles” on its product, Alexander said. Its rivals include Raindance Communications Inc., Latitude Communications and PlaceWare, which was recently acquired by Microsoft Corp.

Other functions added to Meeting Center Thursday include a screen where participants can take notes during meetings, status icons that show whether people are keeping up with a presentation, and the ability to distribute meeting notes and other shared documents automatically after a meeting. The service also now supports IP telephony for users with a headset and microphone attached to their PC, Shah said.

The new features in Meeting Center are available immediately. The price of the service remains unchanged, Shah said.

Many of the new capabilities were made possible by enhancements to WebEx’s MediaTone Network, the fibre-optic network that carries its service around the world, which have been under development for about 18 months, he said.