Product Focus: Groupware

Product Focus: Groupware

by / April 30, 1997
Although groupware has been around since 1989 with the advent of Lotus Notes -- and one might say even years before -- it took the Internet to focus attention on the subject, just like it has on everything else. It's hard to remember that AOL couldn't communicate with CompuServe just a few years ago. Now everybody in the world with electronic connections can e-mail each other. It will eventually become routine to share applications, talk to each other and see each other over the Net.

The beauty of the Net is its driving force for creating a global standard. It's become the glue to bind every legacy interface and protocol together, to allow everything to talk to everything, and it's great for groupware, because groupware is communicating and sharing.

Groupware is hard to pin down perfectly, but in general, it is software that supports workgroups and people working together -- people sharing information and the like. One has to be a bit careful here, because a central database system does that too, and that's been around for decades. If you ponder the subject long enough, you could make a case that every application designed for multiple users is groupware. Therefore, it's best not to ponder the universe, but to look at the things that groupware can do. Hence what follows are most of the primary groupware functions.

The messaging system is at the heart of an integrated groupware product. E-mail is used to notify members of the team, obtain responses and send alerts. As would be expected, most groupware products today allow URLs to be included within e-mail messages that provide live links to an intranet or Internet site. Clicking on them launches the browser automatically, or, if the browser is an integral part of the groupware client, the browser function.

Lotus Notes, which uses a document database as its foundation architecture, can include database links in its e-mail. Instead of sending copies of a document to each group member, only the link is sent and members can access the Notes database directly.

E-mail messages about a specific subject can be collected in a user's computer and linked together in chronological order, providing an ongoing discourse about a certain topic. These "threaded discussions" turn e-mail into a running history of comments and responses. This has been popular with Internet newsgroups at least since Wayne Davison created the trn newsreader back in the mid-1980s. Threaded discussions are now widely implemented on groupware products.

Every groupware product worth its salt is or will be supporting the Internet messaging standards, including SMTP, MIME, POP3, IMAP4 and LDAP. SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol) is the Internet's messaging format. SMTP moves your mail from server to server. MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) allows 7-bit SMTP servers to handle 8-bit files by encoding binary attachments to your e-mail as ASCII text and decoding them at the other end.

POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) and IMAP4 (Internet Messaging Access Protocol) are standard protocols for mail servers, which deliver the mail to you when you log on. Although POP is universally used, IMAP will be increasingly supported as it provides more flexibility than POP. For example, IMAP lets you preview your messages instead of being forced to download a 24MB file you didn't want.

LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is the upcoming global directory standard, a combination yellow and white pages that will provide a common way to look up anybody's address on the Internet.

Shared folders (directories) have been permitted on the earliest networks with varying degrees of access control. The better the document management system, the more sophisticated the levels of access, ensuring authorized users can view precisely what is intended for them. However, when a copy of a document is made and sent elsewhere, chaos can occur if changes to that document aren't properly synchronized. Who has the right version? When was it updated? Replication provides an orderly method for making copies and keeping them in sync with the originals.

How about HTML pages on your intranet? They're undoubtedly shareable. So does that make the Internet and every intranet groupware? It certainly does. Intranets provide a quick and easy way for everybody to view information, but when the information on the page has to be selectively updated from various sources or synchronized with other servers and mobile users, that's where it gets sticky. CGI scripts are the glue that tie HTML pages to databases so you can search for things via Web pages, and CGI scripts can do a lot -- but now we're looking at custom programming.

It's pretty obvious that this shared- document paradigm on the Web has made groupware a hot buzzword. However, while viewing shared files is practically automatic, everything else is not. It either has to be a function within the application or it has to be custom programmed. Lotus Notes has long been noted for its built-in replication capabilities that synchronize documents which are distributed to other sites and mobile users. As groupware spreads throughout the entire organization, robust replication becomes an issue.

Workflow moves messages and documents from one user to the next in a prescribed order. When used with a document imaging system, which scans paper forms into the computer, workflow manages the documents as they flow through the system, ensuring that the appropriate users are viewing the documents, making the required changes to them and doing it all in a timely manner. If a document hangs around in one user's queue too long, someone gets notified and that someone might be the person's supervisor. Workflow is increasingly being touted as a groupware feature, but it may mean little more than being able to route e-mail to the right person. Workflow implies routing and monitoring, but look carefully. It may offer you meaningful functionality or just be an overused buzzword.

Group calendaring is the ability to look into your colleagues' calendars and find out if they're going to be available at such and such a time. This is simply sharing calendars electronically. Group scheduling takes it a step further and lets you schedule meetings with one or more of your team. It involves being able to look into shared calendars to determine a mutually convenient time for the meeting, then sending requests to book that time and waiting for responses. To facilitate the process, users mark their calendars ahead of time with blocks of free and "don't bother me" time.

Personal task management lets you create a set of "to-do" items and keeps track of them for you. Group task management tracks the progress of a project by monitoring task completion dates and sending out reminders when those dates have passed without results. The task management built into groupware is not to be confused with project management applications. Project managers create the "critical path" of a project, which determines which tasks will impact the completion date if held up. Task managers create a shared "to-do" list and keep track of it. Very useful, but not full-blown project management.

Data conferencing (data collaboration) lets two or more geographically dispersed users review or work with the same document or image on screen in realtime. The two primary ways this is done is via whiteboards and application sharing. Whiteboards are the electronic equivalent of a blackboard, letting you copy parts of your application into a whiteboard window that lets you draw and annotate directly on top of it. For example, you might copy some cells from your spreadsheet into the whiteboard and use the pointer to call attention to certain figures. You can use the yellow marker, which can also usually be changed to any color, and circle some cells, draw arrows and so forth. As each user marks the whiteboard, it simultaneously appears on the other screens.

Application sharing is a lot like remote control. In fact, it's really identical to it if one user can work in the other user's computer without restriction. In its simplest form, one user runs the application, say a charting program, and the other users simply watch the chart being built in their viewing windows. This is technically application viewing, not application sharing. Application sharing allows different users to take control of the application. Suppose user A launches an application and does a little work in it. User B then clicks the mouse or on-screen button, takes control and starts typing. Then user C, and so on, until user A gets ticked off and takes it back.

If user A can gain complete control of user B's machine and can launch any and all applications, then application sharing is identical to remote control software. In fact, some application sharing apps have an "enable remote control" button, which essentially says "you can do whatever you want on my machine."

Audio and videoconferencing are the frosting on the cake. Both Netscape's upcoming Communicator, which includes Navigator 4.0, and Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 4.0 with NetMeeting, include audio and videoconferencing. Although they both support the H.323 standard, it is unclear when Communicator users will be able to communicate with NetMeeting users. In the meantime, you'll have to have the same software at both ends.

NetMeeting/Internet Explorer 4.0 is still free due to the heartfelt generosity of Mr. Gates. Of course, you need a sound card for audio and a video camera for videoconferencing. It's not that there isn't software for Internet telephony and videoconferencing already. In fact, there's lots of freeware and shareware. It's just that when Netscape and Microsoft bundle it with their mainstream browsers, it becomes prime time.

It's no great thrill telephoning or videoconferencing over the Net via modem, unless of course you're communicating with your cousin in Japan at a flat $19.95 per month. But over a private intranet, it's downright respectable. Why walk down the hall anymore? We can sit and not budge from nine to five.

By the way, conferencing over the Internet doesn't work like the telephone company. You have to launch your conferencing software and then register with a ULS (User Location Service) server if you're a NetMeeting user, or a DLS (Dynamic Lookup Service) server if you use Communicator. When you dial up the Internet, a dynamic IP address is assigned to your computer when you log on to your ISP. The ULS and DLS servers temporarily hold your e-mail and IP addresses while you're logged on, so somebody can dial you up via your e-mail address and not your constantly changing IP address.

Both Microsoft and Netscape are currently maintaining servers, but directory services such as Four11, Bigfoot, InfoSpace and others are also hosting them.

There are dozens of players in the groupware field that provide one or more of the above-mentioned functions. What follows are the major products that offer a complete groupware solution.

Lotus Notes

Lotus Notes was introduced in 1989 and is the granddaddy of groupware. At the end of 1996, there were 9 million Notes users. Notes includes its own messaging system, directory services, shared documents, threaded discussions, calendaring, scheduling and workflow and runs on Windows, Mac, OS/2 and UNIX platforms. Notes differs from other groupware offerings because its foundation is a document database that holds structured fields, text, images, audio and video. Database fields are as old as the hills, but this simple feature lets data be easily organized and retrieved, and third-party vendors have developed a large variety of Notes applications using LotusScript, Notes' Visual Basic-like programming language.

Notes is widely known for its replication feature, which keeps database contents synchronized when it has to be distributed to multiple locations and mobile users.

Lotus Notes has traditionally been made up of the Notes server and Notes clients. Notes clients are rich, full-featured applications that interact with all of Notes' features on the server. As of mid-1996, Lotus decoupled the Notes server from its clients and is now offering Notes server, renamed Domino, as an open, Internet-ready groupware server. You can now use your favorite browser to access Domino and, when you do, Domino converts the Notes database into HTML pages on the fly. If you use the Notes client, it serves up the Notes database as it always did.

Domino, although with roots in legacy Notes architecture, offers a unique combination of interfaces. It natively supports Notes mail, cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail, and is POP3-compliant. It enables users to go the "thin client" route with their browser while at the same time providing a rich front end to traditional Notes users and to new Notes users that want more functionality in their client-side applications.

Novell GroupWise

Novell's GroupWise is an award-winning product that offers a variety of functions and 7 million users to testify to its popularity. Its roots go back to WordPerfect Office in the late 1980s, which was a combination of PIM, e-mail and group scheduling. By the time Novell acquired it in 1994, WordPerfect Office had been enhanced for the LAN and several hardware platforms. Later that year, Novell added NetWare support and renamed it GroupWise. Today, GroupWise is a fifth-generation messaging system with a universal inbox for personal calendaring, group scheduling, task management, voice mail and faxes.

It also provides document sharing, workflow and threaded discussions. Whiteboards and application sharing are available through third-party products that hook into GroupWise's programming interface. GroupWise clients run on Windows, Mac and UNIX, and the GroupWise server runs on NT, NetWare and UNIX. GroupWise supports a variety of mail systems via gateways including MS Mail, cc:Mail, SNADS, PROFS, Notes, X.400 and Novell's own MHS. It also supports Novell's popular NDS directory service. GroupWise should be completely Internet-compliant by this summer, with support for HTTP, POP3, IMAP4, NNTP, S-MIME (Secure MIME) and LDAP.

GroupWise also lets you have your e-mail via telephone on the road. Using text-to-speech and speech-to-wave files, you can hear your e-mail and create new e-mail by speaking.

Microsoft Exchange and Outlook

Exchange is a popular product, but like many Microsoft offerings, there's always confusion surrounding it. Exchange has three clients: the inbox that came on everybody's Windows 95 desktop, the full Exchange client and Outlook, the 32-bit enhanced version. The inbox is a slimmed-down mail client that gives you access to your ISP via POP3 as well as to CompuServe, Microsoft Mail, cc:Mail and OpenMail servers.

The full Exchange client, which runs under Windows, Mac and DOS and requires the Exchange Server, provides much more, including server-based rules that can be set up to alert you when a certain type of message hits the server or to route those messages automatically to somebody else. Also provided are forms design, threaded discussions, calendaring, group scheduling and task lists.

Outlook is the 32-bit client that runs under Windows 95 and NT and comes with Exchange Server. It also is bundled into Office 97 and can be used stand-alone. Outlook adds the following to the Exchange client: richer forms that support Microsoft's ActiveX component architecture, group contact management, group task management and journaling (keeping track of tasks for hourly billing), message recall (you can recall unread messages that were sent in error), shared discussion folders and freeform notes.

The Exchange Server is naturally Internet-compliant and supports MAPI (MS Mail and other MAPI-compliant systems), X.400, SMTP/POP3, NNTP (newsgroups), MIME, LDAP, HTTP (Web pages) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer security). Although MS Mail is still sold, it is essentially superseded by Exchange. The only downfall with Exchange is that it's a Windows-only solution. But it's selling well with 1 million seats from the time it was first introduced in April 1996 until the end of last year.

As for whiteboards, application sharing, audio and videoconferencing as well as a text chat feature, Microsoft gives it to you free with NetMeeting, which is bundled with Internet Explorer 4.0.

Netscape Communicator and SuiteSpot

Netscape has included a whole bunch of groupware offerings with Navigator 4.0, which it has named collectively Netscape Communicator. Communicator runs on Windows, Mac and a variety of UNIX machines. The standard edition includes IMAP4 compliance in the e-mail client, an HTML editor, audio and videoconferencing, discussion groups, a whiteboard for application viewing (not application sharing), text chat and collaborative browsing -- which lets one user browse Web pages and pass along the links to another user who follows along automatically. The Professional edition adds group calendaring and scheduling, remote administration and 3270 emulation.

Communicator is the client counterpart of Netscape's SuiteSpot servers. The SuiteSpot Calendar Server provides group scheduling and the NNTP-compliant (Usenet newsgroup) Collabra Server manages internal discussion groups. These server programs and seven others make up the complete SuiteSpot offerings for hosting a Web site.

Later this year Netscape is expected to introduce its Constellation component for Communicator, that will let you customize your on-screen interface to suit your daily work habits. In addition, it is designed to automatically update your browser with information it locates on the Net.

Netscape "is" the Internet, so it's way ahead of the pack in that arena, but it's pushing hard to develop a groupware-centric set of applications that will become a mainstream user interface. The fact that its platform is independent and is riding at the top of the brave-new-world paradigm of the Internet may mean it will have a very rosy future.

Alan Freedman's Computer Desktop Encyclopedia on CD-ROM is "the" award-winning reference on the computer industry. It contains more than 9,000 entries from micro to mainframe and includes technical drawings, photographs and charts. It runs on Windows 3.1, 95, NT or Mac Softwindows. CD-ROM $44.95, floppy $34.95. Contact The Computer Language Company, 215/297-8082 (FAX 8424) or .