MS' holey collaboration kit

Office Forms, Groove, and Communications offer possibilities but leave room for improvement

The new Office servers I've discussed in recent weeks are diverse, opening up a wealth of opportunities: online forms, anywhere/anytime collaboration, advanced presence detection and VoIP technology, project management solutions, business intelligence with digital dashboards, and high-caliber search abilities. Microsoft has certainly granted users several computing capabilities through the Office suite.

There are, however, missing pieces and unfinished parts to these servers, though it's possible that the next releases will include more of what we need. On the collaboration side, let's take a look at three: Forms, Groove, and Communications.

Forms Server, if you recall, is a slice of functionality from SharePoint Server 2007. Only marginally less expensive than a full MOSS, it lacks functionality, such as workflow, single sign-on, and data connection libraries, that MOSS provides for forms solutions.

Onto to InfoPath, the Office application for designing forms. With the 2003 version of InfoPath, you could design and view forms only if you had the app installed on your system. With InfoPath 2007, however, you can design forms for use within a browser (thanks to Forms Server).

However, there are some advanced form-designing features that will not function through a browser. Notably, there is a Compatibility Checker included with InfoPath that lets a developer clearly see what features won't work in a browser, giving him or her the chance to seek an alternative solution before posting it up to the server.

However, it would be nice to see all features work in the future through a browser with the forms you develop with InfoPath. Christian Stark, the senior product manager for InfoPath Forms Services within Office, says "It is unlikely that we will support all InfoPath controls in the browser. With the browser, we try to reach more users with the most common forms. (85 to 90 per cent of all forms today can be built for the browser.)" We will have to wait and see if the demand changes his mind.

Groove Server, purchased by Microsoft along with Ray Ozzie, is an excellent product for collaboration anywhere, anytime, and with anyone. However, it lacks the connection with Active Directory that many enterprise administrators would like to see. Having Groove clients come under Active Directory and Group Policy within an organization would make it a more acceptable tool to administrators; it would allow them greater control through more familiar tools and a more familiar interface as opposed to having to learn an entirely new structure (which is currently the case through the Groove Manager and Relay Web interfaces).

Another great feature would be the ability for you to use Groove through a Web interface. We see this with Outlook Web Access (OWA) and Project Web Access (PWA). Why not develop a Groove Web Access (GWA)?

Communications Server 2007 (combined with Communicator 2007) is filled with possibilities on both the software and hardware fronts. New hardware is being developed to allow for better videoconferencing, such as Microsoft Office Roundtable 2007. Some features include 360-degree views and the ability to record conferences. What I would like to see here is less of an emphasis from Microsoft on presence awareness (which seems to be a key focus in Communicator and was a feature that was repeatedly discussed at TechEd 2007 in the sessions revolving around Communicator) and more on persistent conversations.

Presence awareness indicates if a person is available, busy, out of the office, and so forth. It's based upon the natural happenings on your computer (for example, if you haven't moved your mouse or typed for a while, the system assumes you are "away"), but it's easy for a person to manipulate. When the icon tells us the person is not at his or her desk, is that true? Or is the person simply avoiding calls? If we call the person or check in with his or her assistant or walk over to his or her desk, will we discover the truth? Thus, tracking down individuals becomes a different game. We need to admit that this software feature isn't accurate or honest enough and stop trying to keep track of people in this manner.

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