John Fontana: Get ready for some

There is an interesting concept swirling around collaborative software that Lotus Software Group and Microsoft Corp. are doing their best to elevate to buzzword status: “contextual collaboration.”

The idea is you can take a slice of a self-contained collaboration server – an e-mail in-box, a calendar, a discussion group or an instant messaging capability – and slide it into another application without the hassles of hard-coding.

The benefit is that users won’t have to leave familiar applications to enter a separate collaboration system. Fewer applications mean few interfaces and training issues.

Collaboration features in business applications mean efficiencies gained through the ability to question, converse and negotiate within the context of one application. It’s the human element, or as close to it as you can get, for electronic business.

For example, a customer relationship management application may have incorporated into its interface a discussion-group component so that a customer representative could create a forum to log and answer questions.

With the advent of Web services, which let pieces of code be wrapped in standards-based interfaces, Lotus and Microsoft are trying to deconstruct servers into individual single-function components that can be blended into other applications.

Lotus announced its strategy around Java and Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition this month, and Microsoft is busy constructing its story around .Net. However, neither vendor has made significant progress.

Meta Group analyst Matt Cain coined the term “contextual collaboration” about two years ago. Cain says traditional collaboration suites and emerging collaboration models, such as peer-to-peer and teamware, “will evolve as embedded, process-specific components within business systems.” Indeed, Groove Networks is already working with Microsoft to embed its peer-to-peer software into Office.

IT executives can be sure that accompanying this evolution will be a steady diet of vendor-led testimonials on contextual collaboration’s potential to make the electronic business world a friendlier place.

Fontana is a senior editor with Network World (U.S.). He can be reached at