Technology takes the prize

Collaboration makes its presence felt

Ordinarily, I find the phrase “collaboration technology” to be almost as oxymoronic as “automotive linen”. But 2003 was a funny year. For one thing, in an odd sort of harmonic convergence, all three major integrated collaboration vendors — IBM, Microsoft, and Novell —introduced Release 6.5 of their products. For another, these releases all focused on a relatively new concept that, for lack of a better candidate, I consider “The” collaboration technology of the year.

That concept/technology/marketing hook is “presence awareness”, the idea that IM technology can be leveraged to give all sorts of applications — from e-mail and document management to CRM and other line-of-business tools — the capability of delivering and structuring content according to the whereabouts of the user and the capabilities of the user’s device-of-the-moment.

Almost as compelling as the introduction of presence awareness is the trend among the big collaboration vendors toward supporting flexible, modular environments and equipping those environments with sophisticated interfaces that perform equally well with traditional fat clients or with Web browsers. J2EE-based embeddable products, such as IBM’s Lotus Workplace, may well prove to be the ultimate in combining flexibility and adaptability.

Even Microsoft has decided that the modular approach has benefits. It’s rare to see the Redmond gang pull features out of a product, but that’s exactly what happened when Exchange 2003 lost its integrated IM to the new Live Communication Server offering.

Video chat remains a fringe ingredient on the collaboration pizza, although both Apple Computer and Microsoft attacked the problem from different angles in 2003. In acquiring PlaceWare, Microsoft finally found a reasonable substitute for the past-its-use-by-date NetMeeting and rolled out its LiveMeeting service along with the rest of the Office System last fall. Apple raised the bar for video hardware with the iSight camera, giving users a higher-quality audio/video experience; for now, unfortunately, it’s a Mac-only experience.

The biggest missing piece of the collaboration technology puzzle remains a solution to the “IM island” problem. A handful of vendors have developed so-called “IM gateways” that bridge corporate offerings with those of the ISP and portal camp. But the appeal of the consumer-grade AOL-MSN-Yahoo triumvirate is that the services are essentially free; it’s hard to justify paying for a gateway to connect a group that uses a free offering to a group that uses one of the others. Because each member of this unholy trinity sees IM as a way to maintain a captive audience, the only way to open up their networks seems to involve the business end of a judge’s gavel, which I don’t expect to hear anytime soon.

Most of the innovation I expect to see in 2004 falls into three categories: more chunks of the Lotus Workplace system and similar products, a bunch of third-party vendors trying to piggyback on Microsoft Office collaboration tools, and behind door No. 3, a brave handful of vendors trying to stay afloat by attacking niche markets such as document management, workflow, and integration with line-of-business applications. What I don’t expect to see is a solution to spam or the IM island problem, but I’m hoping for surprises.

Story by PJ Connolly

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