Taking collaboration to the masses

Collaboration technology suddenly finds itself split into two camps: those who get it and those who don't. Groove Networks Inc. gets it, IBM Corp. Lotus gets it, Sun Microsystems Inc. is trying to prove that it gets it, but Microsoft is off with the pixies.

My reasoning is pretty straight forward. A company gets it if it meets two requirements for collaboration platforms: dead easy to use and widely available.

The trouble with Microsoft Corp. is that, in its infinite wisdom, it has decided that when Office 2003 rolls out later this year, InfoPath -- its XML forms-based application designed for information capture and dissemination -- will only be available as part of the Enterprise edition.

InfoPath is one component of Microsoft's larger collaboration play, centered primarily on what is now known as Windows SharePoint Services. Unfortunately, you will ultimately need more server infrastructure to make SharePoint fly.

But that's not even the main problem: Microsoft has positioned InfoPath as a tool for power users, the elite knowledge workers. This belies a dangerous misunderstanding of how collaboration tools will take off.

Think about why IM became so popular. It was free and appealed to everyone in the corporate hierarchy. IM, although relatively unsophisticated, is communication for the masses.

Ray Ozzie, CEO of Groove Networks, has captured this notion of ad-hoc simplicity with his client-side peer-to-peer collaboration tool. Ozzie joined InfoWorld Test Center lead analyst Jon Udell and myself on stage at CTO Forum in Boston to discuss his vision for how collaboration and identity scenarios will evolve in the enterprise.

Ozzie explained that tools like Groove or InfoPath will become widely adopted when people feel empowered to use them in an ad-hoc fashion. So collaboration is the digital equivalent of a chat by the office water cooler.

Offering a real-world example, Ozzie explained how Groove is being used in Iraq by humanitarian workers to manage the difficult process of distributing aid. These people are running Groove on laptops or Tablet PCs in the field, creating and modifying forms on the fly, and synchronizing secure data whenever a connection is available. It's easy to use, requires little IT intervention, and copes well with ad-hoc connectivity.

Meanwhile, Sun is trying to walk down the same path with the Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Collaborative Business Platform. This bundle of e-mail, instant messaging, calendar, search, and content management capabilities is also a server-heavy solution. So perhaps it fails my simplicity test on that count.

But Sun is thinking about the future. CTO Greg Papadopolis also spoke at CTO Forum, expounding his vision for a "network of embedded things," thanks to RMI (Remote Method Invocation), Jini, and Jxta. Sun's approach to collaboration is worth tracking as it seeks to make those apps widely available.

Collaboration is supposed to be a natural way to get the job done. IBM Lotus has long pushed this wheelbarrow with the goal of fortifying its Notes installations. InfoPath is the latest contender and one of Microsoft Office 2003's most interesting apps. But its positioning as a special gee-whiz for the select few could also be its downfall.

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