Microsoft cooking up major move to Groove

A year after buying Groove Networks and its peer-to-peer technology, Microsoft has begun laying out plans to develop the software into the offline client it has been missing in its document collaboration story.

Office Groove 2007, which Microsoft introduced in late February, is being developed as the "cache" or offline client for Microsoft's Windows SharePoint Services and the renamed SharePoint Server in Office 2007.

The offline capabilities provides corporate users with better support for distributed work teams and mobile workers, who can take work offline much the same way they do with e-mail and then synchronize their changes once re-connected to the network.

The current SharePoint client is a browser, which means users must be tethered to the network to create or edit any collaborative content.

"This is the most logical thing that they could do with Groove because there is such a significant requirement for an offline store for SharePoint Services," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Gartner. "It is mandatory to be able to take that stuff offline. This is exactly what we had been expecting and were hoping. The only real question is what took them so long."

Windows SharePoint Services is built into Windows operating system and supports the creation of online team spaces. Those team spaces can be managed and made widely available via SharePoint Server.

"We want to make Groove the rich client for SharePoint complementing the Web interface over time," says Marc Olsen, group program manager for Groove. He compares the SharePoint client options and the asynchronous capabilities of Groove to Exchange Server clients Outlook and Outlook Web Access. "Outlook is the place for me, Groove is the place for us -- the active groups I work with -- and SharePoint is the place for them -- all the other people I work with," says Olsen.

The pairing of SharePoint and Groove means Office Groove users or sub-sets of project teams using Groove can check-out documents from SharePoint sites, work on them offline or collaborate on them using Groove, and then synchronize their work with the overall project in SharePoint.

Office Groove also is the place where teams, whether within a company or across companies, can collaborate independent of SharePoint on creating documents using the peer-to-peer connectivity of Groove workspaces, which are kept synchronized on every users desktop using automated replication through a centralized server.

Offline client capabilities are nothing new and have been a feature from the start in the platform of Microsoft's biggest rival IBM Notes/Domino, which was developed by Groove creator Ray Ozzie, who is now Microsoft CTO.

John Wollman, CTO and executive vice president of Alliance Consulting, an IT consulting firm based in New York City, views the tight integration being built between Groove and Office 2007 as a major boon for team collaboration.

Alliance Consulting users distributed across client project sites and throughout the world have been using Groove since its introduction in 2000 to collaborate on creating documents or other content Wollman generically calls artifacts.

"When an artifact is a work in progress, Groove is great at that stage. But it is not great when the artifact is finalized and you want to make it available to a broader audience. That is when you need a portal or something that is more server based. That is the point where peer-to-peer does not work so great."

Wollman says given the integration with SharePoint, he can more easily publish artifacts via SharePoint Server.

"Microsoft has not had an offline client that integrated multiple point tools with collaboration tools, now they have that with Groove," says Wollman.

To support the checkout and synchronization features between SharePoint and Groove, Microsoft is introducing a new SharePoint Files tool. The tool lets users bring specific folders or sub-folders into Groove that are part of larger projects stored in SharePoint. Files that are checked out of SharePoint are locked so other users can't modify them until they are checked in.

In Groove 2007, Microsoft will drop the Mobile Workspace for SharePoint template that is part of the current Groove 3.1 client. The template only replicated entire sites to Groove. Also being dropped are the synchronization features between Groove and Outlook.

What's also missing is how Microsoft will license the software.

The Groove client -- which will be offered as a standalone product or as part of the Office Enterprise bundle -- is only available via volume licensing or through an Enterprise Agreement site license. Pricing has not been announced although Office Live Groove, a hosted version of Groove for small businesses, will be US$79 per user per year.

Users licensed to run Windows SharePoint Services or SharePoint Server will not be required to purchase an additional client access license (CAL) for Groove, according to Microsoft.

"Microsoft's strategy of offering SharePoint Services as a quote unquote "free" product [as part of the server OS] is brilliant because it sparks grass roots adoption but for any significant implementation it requires SQL Server licenses, SharePoint Server licenses and now they may be extending that to Groove licenses," says Gartner's Cain.

The Groove/SharePoint integration will bring other changes. Microsoft is adding routing and approval workflow capabilities in SharePoint Server, which is absorbing the feature set of the discontinued Content Management Server. Groove 2007 will include support the InfoPath Forms Tool and for the same set of APIs currently in Groove 3.1.

Groove 2007 also will include tools found in Groove 3.1 for discussion, files, meetings, calendar, forms, issue tracking, Notepad, pictures, and sketchpad.

The company will ship a rapid application development tool called SharePoint Designer for building SharePoint applications and designing SharePoint sites.

Microsoft also is updating Groove's installation and deployment feature to match those of Office.

Microsoft plans to drop support for the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), which is used to support instant messaging in Groove 3.1, in favor of tighter integration with Office Communicator and its support of a similar real-time protocol called SIP/SIMPLE.

While the Groove client is being integrated with Office, Microsoft is not changing the back-end Groove infrastructure, although the Groove Enterprise Management, Relay and Data Bridge servers are being combined into a bundle called Office Groove Server 2007. The Relay server, however, will only be offered in a 64-bit version.

Microsoft also will offer hosted services for small businesses that provide back-end Groove infrastructure.

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