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Collaborative Computing

E-mail has become perhaps THE core technology, but a host of related capabilities have people talking.

Collaboration used to be simple: stock a meeting room with soda, coffee, and a whiteboard, add workers, and shake until done. No longer. Today collaboration involves not only your co-workers but also members of dispersed “virtual” work teams: salespeople, distributors, retailers, suppliers, customers, and who knows who else.

In response, technology vendors are scrambling to provide a new generation of collaborative tools. It’s not easy, says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC, because CFOs and CIOs have been stubbornly refusing to invest in innovative technologies. “In terms of buying anything new, companies took the last year or so off,” he says. “They upgraded existing products, while more-advanced products waited in the wings.”

Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, and others are among the companies that hope to prove that collaborative computing can make knowledge workers far more productive by putting technology at the heart of every team, work group, and shared effort imaginable. Since that’s how most work gets done, the thinking goes, why not design technology to serve collaborative processes versus the traditional focus on individual empowerment.

Collaborative computing is not a single product or technology, but a class of software-driven products and services. While definitions and groupings vary, it’s generally agreed that collaboration technology includes groupware, instant messaging (IM), Web conferencing, unified messaging and communications, E-mail, and calendaring. That is, it runs the gamut from the indispensable (E-mail) to the nearly undefinable (suites of products that somehow make new ways of working together possible).

These applications all facilitate collaborating on business projects, with most promising to speed reaction times and save money. “It’s got to be more than just sending messages,” says Kevin McLellan, a former marketing manager for workplace-collaboration products at IBM. “The real power is when I can put this in the context of a business process and reduce cycle time.”

Let’s Not Get Together

Collaborative computing can trace its roots to pre-Internet days, but now, to speak of collaborative computing without the Internet is a contradiction in terms. Whether you’re trying to send someone an instant message, schedule a meeting for a far-flung project team, or simply E-mail a group of suppliers, you’re almost certainly using the public Internet.

From there, the technologies vary. IM runs like a mini-Web browser on a computer screen and lets you instantly send short text messages and data files to others equipped with compatible IM software. E-mail, of course, lets anyone send a message to anyone else with an E-mail address. Unified messaging allows users to receive multiple types of messages—including E-mail, voice mail, and faxes—from a single, universal inbox, and to send and receive messages from various devices, including office and mobile telephones, computers, and PDAs. Web conferencing lets team members working from various locations share documents and slides in a virtual work space accessed from a PC (via the Internet, of course) while simultaneously talking via traditional teleconference or Internet-enabled phone service (aka Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP).

Some collaborative technologies include what is known as presence, and those that don’t are expected to have it soon. Presence is typically a way to see who is participating in a collaborative session, and it often provides a way to interact. It can be as simple as a list of attendees—click on people’s names and send them an instant message, or at least know they’re listening.

The Way We Work Now

Taken to its logical conclusion, collaborative technology could transform not only nearly any kind of business computing application but also ultimately the way people work.

Microsoft is adding collaborative technology to its operating systems and applications. IBM continues to drive its Lotus subsidiary into new realms of collaborative computing, expanding the Domino and Notes products to facilitate, among other things, broad shared access to data and applications. Instant messaging has exploded in popularity, and Web conferencing continues to gain ground.

Even if an enterprise isn’t reinvented around collaborative computing, it may be happy to save money. IBM conducts as many as 10,000 Web conferences a month, according to McLellan, and calculates the savings from reduced travel at $60 million a year.

More Is Better

With sales of collaborative-computing products reaching $3.6 billion this year, it’s clearly a mainstream application. E-mail, the foundational collaborative application, is, by most accounts, the current “killer app.”

Yet collaboration technology stands at a transition point. IM, which started out as a consumer product offered by AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft, has found its way onto corporate desktops, often sneaking in under the CIO’s radar. Top IT vendors have noticed, and they’ve decided that if E-mail and IM are good, product suites that combine them with other collaborative tools are vastly better.

Later this month, Microsoft will begin shipping Office Live Communications Server 2003, software that lets companies run their own enterprise IM networks, log those messages, and determine whether a user is online and available for communication via Office applications. OpenScape from Siemens combines voice, E-mail, IM, and collaboration features. Apple Computer has added video to IM with its iChat AV software and iSight digital camera.

IBM, as mentioned, continues to build out its Lotus Notes and related products such as QuickPlace, a more function-rich “team environment.” And Oracle is marketing its Collaboration Suite both on its technological capabilities and as a lower-cost option to Microsoft’s dominant E-mail products.

A large group of lesser-known vendors is also offering collaboration products. Some, including Hummingbird and Open Text, have found success selling to departments of large corporations and smaller companies. Others, including Gauss and iManage, have been acquired by larger competitors. WebEx, PlaceWare, and others have made Web conferencing a $500 million business.

Next year could be a hot time for collaborative computing. The concept of presence will be added to more technologies, even telephones. Sprint is developing technology that will show who on your cell phone’s directory currently has his cell phone switched on and is available to take your call.

Come Together

Another likely area for growth is voice on the desktop, also known as computer-telephony integration. A growing number of vendors have adopted the technology, and corporate telephony departments are increasingly either losing budget or being absorbed into their IT organizations.

Standards will be another key issue. IM, for example, is hamstrung by several incompatible approaches; users of AOL’s Instant Messenger, for example, can’t send messages to users of Yahoo or Microsoft systems. As is often the case, major vendors are squaring off.

But that won’t slow the emergence of what Stamford, Connecticut-based technology-research firm Gartner analysts dub “smart enterprise suites.” These will be tightly integrated, end-to-end families of applications that will include a portal framework, content-and document-management tools, various forms of conferencing, instant messaging, and more—all from a single vendor.

That means fewer but bigger vendors. Gartner expects that as many as half of all companies offering collaboration products will disappear by 2005, due to what it calls MADD (mergers, acquisitions, divestiture, and demise). “It’s being driven in part by the desire of users to have an integrated solution without implementation or interoperability issues,” says Burke Oppenheimer, a Gartner analyst.

Much of this will likely hinge on the direction of the economy. If conditions strengthen throughout 2004, the next 12 months could see a transformation in the way people and companies collaborate. If not, the makers of coffee cups and whiteboard markers will enjoy another good year.

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