Collaboration changes focus

Assessing the future of any technology is difficult, but in the case of enterprise collaboration, it’s made easier by the dramatic evolution of tools and technologies that has taken place in recent years. For once, the future is now; it’s just going to take some time for the installed base to catch up with flexible and modular collaboration platforms. The transformation of ways in which people interact through and with computers may be as dramatic as the way the technology itself has developed.

Whatever the future of enterprise collaboration may hold, it will never be as dramatic a sea change as in the past. When Lotus Notes debuted in 1989, it was a radical departure from the prevailing norms of electronic collaboration. By combining rich development tools with the well-established concept of e-mail, it unleashed a flurry of competing attempts at developing the ICE (integrated collaboration environment).

Almost 15 years later, both user interfaces and back-end services have morphed to meet the needs of users. Integration seems to have given way to modularity. It’s fair to suggest that the most drastic change in the way people work together has been the expansion of IM, which has evolved from a rogue application that small workgroups might adopt on an ad hoc basis, into one of two important load-bearing walls of the collaborative ecosystem. The more significant of these walls, e-mail, hasn’t gone away, and is more useful than ever, now that anyone with access to a computer — even folks who lack a fixed domicile — can be assumed to have at least one e-mail address. To complete the analogy, portals and Web conferencing form the other two walls of the collaboration structure and are just now coming into their own as user-provisioned parts of the ecosystem. These will undoubtedly see more widespread use if they can be deployed without putting an undue burden on already-stretched-thin IT staffs.

Some of the important changes to collaboration environments are transparent to the vast majority of users. For example, databases that store documents and mail have traditionally been built around so-called “flat” databases. Vendors claimed their products were so efficient that they didn’t require more complex relational database technologies. But that’s about to change, as vendors seek to improve the scalability of their offerings.

Oracle Corp.’s already there, using its renowned database as the store for its messaging system — although only a handful of customers have followed the Pied Piper of Redwood Shores. IBM Corp.’s DB2 will be supported in Version 7 of Lotus Domino, scheduled to ship next year; and somewhere around 2006, the Kodiak release of Microsoft Corp. Exchange and the SQL Server Yukon release will share a common database engine.

Another case of behind-the-scenes evolution is in the development tools used to fit each installation to the needs of its corporate users. Formerly, an integrated collaboration environment was defined by the inclusion of integrated development features that could make even relatively unskilled users feel like “real” application designers. But that’s no longer a taxonomical requirement; even IBM has seen the folly of maintaining multiple development environments and is making its Rational and WebSphere tools as friendly as Lotus Domino Designer.

Enabling the deskless

This is simply another sign of the maturity of enterprise collaboration. Although industry watchers foresee some ICE growth in Asian/Pacific markets, that growth will merely replace seats lost in other markets. The worldwide market is pretty much saturated. Where are the ICE seats from Europe and North America going?

In some cases, they’re simply going away, as enterprises eliminate layers of management or outsource operations to specialty service providers. In other instances, businesses that never fully embraced the application development features of ICEs find that their collaboration needs are better met by systems that offer simple e-mail and calendar management without the extra overhead of development environments. Some vendors are approaching the trend toward lighter messaging systems as an opportunity to address the needs of the so-called deskless workers. These aren’t necessarily the shop floor worker or the bank teller, to cite two common examples.

This term includes remote workers, people whose jobs involve heavy travel, and other categories where the end-user has access to a Web browser and wants the features available to him or her in the office but can’t run the traditional rich client.

This flexible, lightweight model is a perfect fit, given the ubiquity of the Web browser. The genie of Web access to collaborative resources is out of the bottle, and vendors are embracing the concept as fast as their development cycles will permit.

For an example of this stampede, one need look no further than the meshing among Microsoft’s Exchange mail server, the Live Communication Server for IM, the Live Meeting Web conferencing service, and the SharePoint Portal Server, which enables Active Directory-based management, provisioning, and integration of IM technology into mail, meetings and portals.

But Microsoft’s not the only player with a flexible, modular strategy built around a mix of rich clients and Web browsers. IBM and Novell offer similar product offerings: Big Blue’s portfolio includes an e-learning component, fleshing out its vision of what collaboration involves, whereas Novell’s is distinguished by the uniquely open Virtual Office, a portal that doesn’t tie the customer to a particular vendor’s database products.

Oracle jumped into the collaboration space about 18 months ago.

“We had developed some products and pulled them together into the Oracle Collaboration Suite, and it’s really viewed as a fourth generation of collaboration tools,” says Dave Rumer, director of marketing for Oracle Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “If you look at the first generation, it was really mainframe-based e-mail systems. The second generation was based around file-sharing architectures, while the third generation was based around client-server architectures.”

Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes were big players in this space, and Rumer believes Oracle is having an influence on these collaboration heavyweights with it’s so-called fourth-generation of the technology, which is a database-centric architecture.

If you look at some of the challenges that Microsoft and Lotus Notes product has, they are really file-sharing systems. They are actually moving towards the approach that Oracle has implemented, the database-centric architecture,” Rumer says. This setup offers inherent security, messagability, reliability and scalability features, but also goes further, Rumer adds.

“With today’s state of collaborative computing, just about any kind of client today can access corporate information. What the database and the Oracle Application Server provides you is the ability to get access to that, as well as all these inherent features. The information, whether it’s a voice mail, a document, an e-mail – all of this can be stored in a database structure. That really is one of the key differentiators in terms of what we bring to the table.”

Presence accounted for

All of the Big Three ICE vendors — IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, and Novell Inc. — took advantage of new releases of their flagship collaboration products in the last year to push their interpretation of “presence awareness,” which involves determining whether a user is immediately reachable or is in a less-available status. Based on IM technology, presence awareness is built into or is about to show up in all sorts of applications, from e-mail and portal products, to CRM and HR applications. Although the potential for misuse of presence features will someday collide with traditional notions of privacy, it’s clear that the convenience of presence awareness outweighs the dangers.

Although it may be too much to ask that the competitors make their IM products transparent to one another, these products do hold some promise for a “presence awareness detente.” IBM and Microsoft have embraced signaling-based IM industry standards such as SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leverage Extensions), and Novell is working on building the XML-based XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) into its IM technology.

Regardless of which protocols win out, it’s likely that in a few years, vendors will include gateway features in their IM products that will permit the dispatch of IMs and presence indicators from one vendor’s collaboration platform to another’s as easily as one sends e-mail between systems from different vendors. The only way this will happen, however, is if customers complain loudly enough. Otherwise, Yahoo will remain IM’s lowest common denominator. S

hould this “presence nirvana” take root, it’s foreseeable that e-mail, IM, and telephony may all morph together, which could be frightening for those companies seeking to maintain accessible and auditable records of communications for regulators. B

ut a customer’s headache is a vendor’s opportunity, and the new frontier of collaboration could well be the driving force behind the next IT boom as businesses and governments seek to take advantage of new applications and services.

One thing is clear about the future of collaboration: It will be a richer experience than people are used to having today. By extending the reach of collaborative capabilities and incorporating presence awareness into apps, documents, and the network fabric, enterprise IT architects will make users more productive, while providing a more effective way to retain the elusive “organizational memory.”

Whether the structure will resemble a fortress or a house of cards remains to be seen.

– with files from Greg Enright

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