Team players

Collaboration software paves the way for live document sharing and group communication

Few kinds of software are as slippery to categorize as those that use computer networks to bring people together.

Once quaintly called groupware and generally limited to originally proprietary programs such as the first Lotus Notes, these tools took off in the late 1990s when the Internet made networking cheap and universal.

Powerful corporate and Web search engines became integrated with knowledge-management software and enterprise e-mail to form giant organisms of information and communication. Then many of these applications were rolled together and accessed by employees and customers through centralized portals, the Web toy that everyone wanted but didn’t always know how to use.

The past couple of years have seen the emergence of new, Web-based software with less lofty yet more practical ambitions, and governments are beginning to take advantage. Rather than trying to smother everyone in a sort of electronic group hug, what’s now called collaboration software facilitates the short-term communication needs of project teams.

Nearly always, the objects of their collaboration are documents, such as requests for proposals, marketing campaigns or engineering designs. Thus, repositories and document management and workflow tools are increasingly central to collaboration tools. So, too, are the means to carry out the daily buzz of communications among workgroups, be they face-to-face or remote: e-mail, discussion boards, calendars, alerts, project timelines and, lately, instant messaging and audio/videoconferencing.

The limitations of standard e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook also have driven innovation in collaboration tools. People’s first instinct is to start group discussions in e-mail, but when the volume becomes unmanageable, and documents are passed around, they hanker for more elegant tools designed for the unique demands of effective, electronically mediated teamwork.

Collaboration tool vendors are selling products to customers as diverse as states, local jurisdictions and several wings of the Defense Department.

For example, the Connecting Windsor-Essex public Web portal in Ontario uses IBM’s Lotus Workplace and Instant Messaging applications, along with IBM’s WebSphere Portal, to provide community groups with online collaboration tools they wouldn’t otherwise have. The local Rotary Club is the first on board with the service, dubbed the Community Connector, but expansion to other groups is expected soon.

“The management is being done by someone within the Rotary,” said Connecting Windsor-Essex spokesperson Kristina Verner. “We just create their place, and they go off and moderate it [and] customize it.”

Collaboration tools are quickly adapting to current trends in online communication. Vendors and analysts note the influence of IM both as a feature within collaboration tools, and in the increasingly pop-up-style user interfaces of the tools themselves.

“IM is just threaded discussions, in real time,” said Campbell Robertson, director of government solutions for Open Text Corp. In addition, more people are reportedly using video and audio conferencing—audio usually is favored because of its broader hardware support and better quality—either inside the same collaboration tool or in separate conferencing software. Regulatory requirements and beefed-up grant administration are boosting demand for handling forms in proper bureaucratic ways. “Workflow is increasingly becoming important to our customers,” said Joy Reo, director of marketing at SiteScape Inc.

Long-hyped Web services and related component-based software development techniques are also a trend, as vendors try to enable seamless movement of data among widely distributed applets, such as discussion boards and document managers.

This componentization of key communication functions could cause the category to blend into other application software, a goal explicitly sought in the development plans of vendors. Microsoft Corp., for example, has been deepening integration between its Windows SharePoint Services and everyday desktop tools such as Office and Project.

In May, IBM announced IBM Workplace, new open-source client technology to be implemented in a new line of products. The first two will be Lotus Workplace Documents and Lotus Workplace Messaging. Both run on IBM’s Java-based WebSphere platform and are not tied to the Lotus Notes/Domino messaging platform as previous offerings have been.

“Over time, it’s going to be less and less about the individual applications,” said Jeanette Barlow, market manager for IBM Workplace. “It’s more about how we weave those capabilities throughout our organization’s products.”

Embedding collaboration will change the category for good. “It will no longer be a market in a year or two,” predicted Erica Rugullies, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. Instead of buying separate collaboration products, organizations will “assemble a network of services,” Rugullies said.

The product listing shows the offerings of the major collaboration vendors, most of which have significant government sales.

The granddaddy of the virtual workplace is Documentum’s eRoom, with other server-based, browser accessible products coming from Ezenia Inc. and IsoSpace Inc., among others.

Some, especially Open Text and to some extent SiteScape, are seen as more oriented toward document management and searching, while Groove Networks Inc.’s Workspace Professional leads as the peer-to-peer, IM-like fat-client alternative to the browser tools. Kubi Software Inc.’s Kubi Client takes the unique tack of insinuating itself into the familiar Outlook screen.

For the accompanying chart, I left out products such as Borland Software Corp.’s StarTeam that focus more narrowly on software-development projects or on specific government functions. Also not included is software that specializes in conferencing, instant messaging and other components of a broader collaboration system.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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