Groupware Grows Up

New features and technologies are available for collaboration by two-or more. Here's an update on the survival of the fittest.

Groupware is evolving. Struggling to shed the "glorified e-mail" label and reclaim a reputation as purveyors of seriously useful and productive software, vendors are adding new tools and are working to co-opt the momentum of the knowledge-management movement. That means a wider range of both traditional store-and-forward and real-time communication technologies.

This is not a market poised for overall explosive growth, with International Data Corp. (IDC) projecting worldwide collaborative application software revenues to grow from $3.1 billion in 2000, to $3.5 billion in 2004. Of more interest is the role ASPs will play in serving up collaborative software. IDC calls for 2000s $170 million business to leap to $2 billion in 2004. In fact, a recent IDC survey of prospective ASP users showed that collaborative software is the most popular "current or preferred use of ASPs," with more than 60 percent expressing a taste for hosted groupware.

"Weve seen customers going from nice to have to need to have, turning this into a line item in their budget," says Tim Butler, president and CEO of Sitescape, which develops the hosted WebWorkZone collaboration portal.

With e-mail clearly the ultimate IT commodity, the traditional leading groupware vendors are pitching their systems as anything but standard messaging solutions. Lotus—still considered the market leader after defining the category with Notes in 1989—increasingly has emphasized its QuickPlace discussion area and Sametime real-time communication and sharing products over the mail and storage capabilities of the flagship product. Microsoft is positioning Exchange Server 2000 as a workflow system.

Whos on Top? One of the most bizarre features to materialize recently in groupware is Novells new digital routing slip, included in the upcoming GroupWise 6. What developed in the paper-based world as a cost-saving necessity is now apparently considered a feature in the electronic world—the ability to put an access hierarchy on a particular document, so that certain people see it before others in an automated, managed fashion.

A host of smaller firms have risen to compete for dominance, usually taking on a few specific areas rather than trying to replace the millions of soup-to-nuts seats owned by Lotus and Microsoft.

Distant Memories The idea behind discussion-oriented systems like Sitescapes WebWorkZone is to get important information out of private e-mail and into the open, because one employees solution may turn into anothers problem. "Youre solving your problem, but three years down the road you could be creating a much bigger problem for the enterprise," says Butler. The goal is to create enterprise memory, which is more reliable than asking an employee who might not even be around in three years to search his inbox for an e-mail he may not have saved.

Because e-mail has become second nature, others are trying to capture the knowledge as it is created, rather than force people to collaborate in more artificial environments. New York-based Abridge has developed a namesake application, available in a hosted and soon an installed form, that tracks and catalogs enterprise e-mail by content and topic area using natural language analysis. Users can later pull the information down with a Web client, or they can directly query the database with e-mail commands, just like old-school FTP-via-mail systems.

Instead of raising privacy hackles by scanning every e-mail on the corporate server, Abridge works through a CC: address that users have to opt to use. Abridge president Susan Hunt Stevens says that while opt-in has its disadvantages, the situation tends to police itself. "If somebody forgets, other people are still getting the e-mail and they can forward it in. And as soon as somebody wants access to information and they dont have it in the group, you get a nastygram that says, Dont forget to CC: this; I tried to get access from home, I couldnt, and it really made me mad! "

New Growth Even a seemingly basic problem like scheduling is attracting attention by those who hope to lay the groundwork for any-to-any scheduling systems that are completely platform and enterprise neutral. "Theres a lot of time wasted with people just trying to find out when youre available," says Jeremy Coote, president of eCal, who claims that more than 40 percent of all e-mail is concerned with scheduling. Operating on the premise of "you dont need to communicate with people in order to fill their schedules," eCal wants to provide the backbone where any computing device can talk with a network of standardized calendaring servers, to accurately book time with anyone from anywhere.

To boost the reach of its technology, eCal is building its collaborative scheduling ASP service into a product form, slated to ship this May. Coote believes that networked wireless devices will become the platform of choice for managing what he calls "event-driven collaboration," because they have the reach to make it possible to schedule any event at any time. To a large extent, that vision is predicated on the ability and willingness of collaboration and scheduling vendors to share data, and Coote professes faith in the iCAL (RFC 2445) standard for appointment and calendar items. While a number of vendors large and small, including eCal, Lotus, Microsoft and NotWired, support iCAL objects, Novell will not support the format in GroupWise 6.

On the other hand, Novell also is talking up the prospects of wireless platforms—for administration, as well as user access. GroupWise admins will be able to monitor the status of the system, receive system performance alerts, and even stop and restart groupware software modules. Not coincidentally, that also will give outsourced management providers an extra level of remote access to the systems they maintain.

Out in the stratosphere, companies like Atlanta-based Strio are pressing for intricate Bluetooth networks that will seamlessly shepherd individuals from one group collaboration environment to another, as they move throughout a building or retail complex. For instance, as you pull into the parking lot of the building where your meeting is scheduled, your PDA links in to the buildings network, identifies your appointment and points you to the meeting room, updating you on any last-minute changes in plans along the way. When you drive away, the device starts looking to join back up to its home network.

Hot Site Cools Prospects The prospects for universal Internet-based groupware were diminished significantly by the shutdown of last year. Although other "prosumer" Web-based collaboration sites like survived, HotOffice generally was viewed as having an excellent no-nonsense collection of useful messaging, discussion and scheduling tools. The company was unable to wean many customers from the (perfectly adequate) free version of the service, however, and the operation folded.

Nevertheless, groupware that can be deployed anywhere and anytime—even for a short while—remains a strong growth area. "I think thats a great market … especially when theyre hosted, theyre easy to set up and tear down," says Tom Bailey, director of service offering management for Herndon, Va.-based Lotus partner netASPx.

"Traditional groupware was and still is centrally managed by the IT department. But when youre talking about solutions being used on fairly fast-cycle collaborative environments, you cannot afford that," says Francois Gossieaux, chief marketing officer for digital workplace developer eRoom Technology of Cambridge, Mass. Especially for hosted and Web-based applications, there is a great deal of emphasis on management tasks ranging from document storage to user maintenance that can be shifted to a team leader, without IT intervention.

Widespread Internet technologies have made once-astounding propositions for groupware systems seem commonplace. Consider the instant-messaging (IM) space, which is a groupware environment in its own right. A real-time chat room with unlimited participants is as close as the free IM client of your choice. Time to configure: maybe a minute. Total cost of ownership: free. Lotus, Microsoft and Novell all are moving to incorporate such IM capabilities and other peer-to-peer technologies in their own systems. While the prospect of directly linking document storage and sharing and even workflow processes with an IM client are attractive and worth pursuing, much of the effort is needed simply to keep up with the independents.

For just 35 cents per minute, per participant, will host a Web conference that shares a presenters desktop with any number of viewers. Two cents per minute more adds VoIP conferencing, five cents per minute more adds a dial-in teleconference bridge. At those prices, obsessing about an in-house real-time collaboration system can be foolish, especially if the need is infrequent or casual.

Crawling Groupware seems to have missed a number of golden opportunities to become the true focal point for enterprise computing. After all, what was the excitement over enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) about, if not sharing data and collaborating across various departments of a company and its partners in order to do business smarter and better? An application built expressly to encourage and enable employees to share data and workflow would seem ideal for the task, yet ERP and CRM designers have by and large stayed well away from groupware platforms in favor of standalone or Web-hosted infrastructures.

Although companies like CCGs Rapport and Relavis eBusinessStreams offer Notes/Domino-based CRM, and Worldtrak has a similar package for Outlook/ Exchange, historically CRM has been a standalone application and the groupware-based systems are nowhere near the volume of the market leaders. "They have a huge stumbling block," says InterNoded CEO Julie Palen. "Even with [millions] of seats of Notes out there … most of the world still thinks of Notes as a very expensive e-mail package, because they dont necessarily get it." She also believes that organizations are frightened enough at the prospect of installing a groupware or an ERP or CRM system, and that lumping one atop the other may seem to create an intolerable level of strain and risk for IT. Ken Bisconti, VP of Lotus partner organization, defends the CRM efforts of Lotus partners and adds that his company is trying to work more closely with CRM vendors such as PeopleSoft and Siebel to encourage greater integration.

Walking After missing several relevant software movements, however, groupware finally may find its 21st century raison dêtre in the knowledge-management movement. Indeed, vendors are scrambling to firmly establish their groupware systems as the core of next-generation document and knowledge administration and delivery.

"It started three or four years ago, when the collaborative vendors realized that a lot of the value of their systems was being wasted," says IDC research director Mark Levitt. "Exchanging e-mail and hav-ing threaded discussions, and working on shared folders and databases, did not translate easily into corporate knowledge."

With the emphasis of collaborative systems increasingly focused on project management, it becomes a no-brainer to put document storage and management in the mix—most information is associated with at least one project or class of projects, so groupware systems are an ideal entry point. Microsofts answer is the late 2001 release of SharePoint Portal Server, which will index and classify data from a wide range of sources, while Lotus offers K-station and the upcoming Lotus Discovery Server, which combines document and personnel knowledge management. "That server provides profiling around users—how much information they have, which document sees the most activity, which are accessed most frequently and some mapping as to who the experts are in your organization," says Denise Carreau, Gartner Group senior analyst.

"When you start to bundle that [Discovery Server] with the awareness capabilities of things like Sametime, you run into a pretty interesting proposition—you identify sets of knowledge capital, know who the expert is and get instant access to them," says netASPxs Bailey.

With a growing trend toward managing knowledge, can the blending of e-learning and groupware be far behind? IDCs Levitt says that vendors will need to apply common-sense restraint to the emphasis they place on automated education. "To think about e-learning as a replacement for classroom learning or traditional university degrees is overblown, but using technology to supplement live classroom experience is a positive," he says.

Running According to InterNodeds Palen, customers increasingly are demanding collaboration systems built from a variety of vendor sources, which puts pressure on integrators to be able to tie diverse programs in CRM, human resources and e-mail/discussion into a unified front end. "I want to be able to implement all of those, tie them all together, and have it not matter that one was built in WebSphere and one was built in Exchange and one was built in Domino," she says.

To that end, watch for an increase in groupware components licensed as interchangeable parts. Lotus already is providing elements to portals and communities—Excite, for one, uses Sametime as part of its online communities.

Bailey says that the growth in mix-and-match groupware technology presents a tremendous opportunity for ASPs, who can serve as "low-risk aggregators" of the parts that will make up tomorrows collaborative environments. Done right, the client hardly needs to be aware of the multivendor approach. "Because theyre all browser-based, there are pretty low [requirements] of an internal IT organization," he says.

Gossieaux believes there is still a demand for all-in-one groupware systems. "Its just like when people go out to lease office space: They expect office space to come with meeting rooms," he says. "When they look for virtual workplaces, they dont want to have to use one application to do real-time meetings and another to do contract negotiation or functional specification."

Your fathers e-mail system isnt up to the challenge of todays business problems—but then, todays groupware systems are working hard to ensure you never even have to care about their humble roots. With instant messaging, desktop sharing and comprehensive document management on the horizon, who cares about the postman, anyway?