Real-time collaboration is a hot topic again. This time, it seems, the buzz has substance.
Analysts describe a dramatic expansion of audio and videoconferences, e-meetings, instant messaging and other real-time collaborative applications among enterprise users. Meta Group indicates that future knowledge workers will widely embrace real-time collaboration technologies during the next three years. Forrester Research reports that enterprise organizations plan to more than triple their use of online collaborative design tools within that same time frame.
Real-time collaboration is rising on the enterprise radar for three reasons. First, businesses are striving to be highly responsive while still reducing overhead associated with human resources. A "real-time enterprise" uses technology to identify opportunities and resolve obstacles. Web services and presence-detection systems that facilitate real-time collaboration are part of a real-time corporation.
The second driver is instant messaging, coming of age in the workplace. Having an easy to use "dashboard" for performing rapid inquiries reduces the real and perceived barriers between people and access to mission-critical information. Ferris Research has found that once people master instant messaging, they are more inclined to adopt other forms of real-time collaboration.
Finally, Microsoft has designated real-time communication and collaboration as key initiatives in its current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2004. Although Microsoft isn't the real-time collaboration market leader (IBM holds that honor with its Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing software), the flexing of its marketing muscle throws attention at these technologies.
Use of Web conferencing services, such as WebEx from WebEx Communications, is a reliable indicator of the adoption of one category of real-time collaboration technology - the stand-alone collaboration application. Videoconferencing, which has experienced a significant 5 percent to 10 percent increase in use worldwide during the past year, and instant messaging are other examples in this category.
With these tools, a user must launch a separate application, or, in the case of Web or videoconferencing, must use previously scheduled sessions. That's a potential downside. "People don't instinctively want to stop what they're doing in the middle of their workflow and start 'collaborating,'" says Chris Piche, founder and president of Eyeball Networks, a provider of IP-based audio and videoconferencing software.
Still, many early adopters apparently are willing to make the effort. WebEx reports a 35 percent increase in enterprise use from the first to second quarter of 2003.
A breakthrough in real-time collaboration is the emergence of contextual collaboration - collaboration initiated from within a productivity application or an enterprise portal. Contextual collaboration use and revenues are significantly more difficult to size than those for the stand-alone applications. For example, a Microsoft Exchange server and Windows Server 2003 license with Live Communication Server option and Office 11 productivity applications soon will permit real-time collaboration from a mouse click in PowerPoint or Word, but collaboration isn't the principle justification for these investments.
Examples of context-sensitive collaboration abound. IBM WebSphere and PeopleSoft Enterprise Portal are two tools that can create portals with presence-publishing and monitoring capabilities. When linked with an enterprise instant-messaging registration server (or a public instant-messaging service provider) users on these portals can see the names and states of others.
"We believe that the real-time collaboration should be integrated into horizontal as well as vertical applications. Users will get the most impact when collaboration is part of their workflow," says David Gurle, global head of collaboration services at Reuters in New York. Reuters is integrating real-time collaboration and conferencing functionality (such as application sharing and instant messaging) into its 3000Xtra premium information service to foster workflow.
Contextual collaboration is enabled directly by a vendor, as in case of IBM's portal platform and Microsoft's portal and productivity tools; or through middleware, such as that offered by Ikimbo; or plug-ins, such as those offered by Advanced Reality and others. In a joint development with business process management vendor MetaStorm, Ikimbo Agenda enables real-time collaboration and instant messaging among groups of people responsible for different mission-critical processes.
The current generation of contextual collaboration technology relies primarily on proprietary hooks and APIs. Ratification and adoption of industry standards such as Session Initiation Protocol and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions will reduce significantly the time involved to integrate real-time collaboration capabilities into third-party applications. IBM and Microsoft say they'll support SIP, but proprietary mechanisms remain important in the collaboration platforms released to date.
Several other challenges remain as well. Most significantly, companies need an integrated and automated way to record and audit collaborative sessions to ensure regulatory, and corporate policy, compliance. They also need a way of establishing sessions across firewalls and network address translation devices when an individual's IP address is hidden.
And there are questions of cost. Pilot programs and trials do not accurately reflect the final total cost of ownership for real-time collaboration, and until companies can predict the impact implementations will have on their budgets, moving ahead will be difficult.
Despite these obstacles, real-time collaboration holds the potential to accelerate business decisions. Enterprise use certainly will continue growing during the next 12 months.