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7/20/2006
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Collaboration Functionality in Microsoft Vista

Microsoft says Vista will be out early next year... yeah right! But when it does come out, Vista looks to be the most collaboration-oriented operating system ever. Over the last few years, Microsoft has put its toe into the collaboration waters, but with Vista, it looks like it is diving in.

In my firm's RTC report last Fall, we talked about how Microsoft will push collaboration down into the operating system. Figure 1 shows not only the different functional categories that my firm has for the collaboration market, but also has arrows showing directionality of the market.

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Figure 1. Taxonomy and Trend Directions.

What we see from these arrows is a convergence of the market around "Project Management, Virtual Workplace, and Process", and that all of the other functions (CRM, Document Management, KM, portals and communities, and RTC functions) are being merged into this central space. Many of these functions are being pushed down into the “collaborative infrastructure” layer that currently deals with e-mail, security, directory structures, and so on.

Although it is happening slowly, we are starting to see RTC features moving into virtual team tools (the central square in Figure 1). There are a few vendors that now offer web-based project management and virtual team tools, where presence and IM have been integrated. Convoq ASAP and Sherpa Project are both good examples of this. However, when most of the vendors in this area of collaboration are questioned about the integration of RTC into project tools, the reply we generally get is “Our customers are not asking for it.” One of the sayings at Collaborative Strategies is that “Customers don’t know what they don’t know.” Consequently, they don’t ask for things they don’t know about or even think is possible. Relying only on customer feedback to determine your product roadmap is a pitfall that many collaboration vendors seem to fall into. With that strategy for a product roadmap, the vendor will always be a "follower,” not a “leader" or "innovator.” We see the integration of IM and presence into the project management, workflow and virtual team space areas as a great opportunity for product/service differentiation over the next few years.

With all of these collaborative functions collapsing in on the central square in Figure 1 (Virtual Team Spaces), we also see an arrow showing many of these functions being pushed down into what we call the “collaborative infrastructure layer.” One of the major forces pushing many of these collaborative functions down into this layer is Microsoft, since it owns the Windows operating system.

In a recent briefing about Office 12, Microsoft showed a new “results-oriented” user interface (UI) rather than the “command-oriented” interface that Office tools have had for the last 20 years. This new interface is based on what the person wants to do rather then how the commands can be grouped together.  This makes sense and shows the maturity of the Office product, and how well Microsoft is listening to its customers.

A new “Review” tab was promised to have additional workflow (routing) capabilities for any type of document created in Office 12, but what was not covered in this briefing was how collaboration will be integrated into Office 12. Our guess is that there will be a “Collaboration” tab that will let you share whatever document your working on with others on your team, group, etc. The collaboration tab will include icons that will show the presence of others (through MSN and Microsoft Communicator). This will enable to you chat or IM others about a document your working on. Microsoft should be able to link to AOL and Yahoo (as was announced earlier this year) servers so that you will be able to do two-way communication with associates in those IM areas (I asked this question of Mr. Gates at the MS Communicator 2005 announcement in San Francisco).

Microsoft is supporting SIP not XMPP, so it is not likely that its tools will communicate with IM clients like GoogleTalk and Skype (now eBay).  We believe that users will get tired of having 2-3 IM clients on their desktop, and that some common standard for IM (interchange) will emerge over the next year and put an end to IM wars.  The value from the network effect will drive such a standard, and as much as Microsoft might resist this, it eventually will have to join in or lose the market share it has with MSN. Microsoft has announced "federation" deals with AOL and Yahoo as two bullets in its war against Google.

Presence is such a compelling function that Microsoft is putting it into Vista. The underlying technology is known as "People Near Me" and is being used by Microsoft for its own software projects and by other developers. The company has built one such program into Vista -- Windows MeetingSpace -- that lets people share and view files.

MeetingSpace is designed with a couple of situations in mind. First is the scenario where people meet up at a coffee house and want to share data with one another. The second scenario might be within a company where several people are meeting and want to be able to view and edit a presentation together. The feature requires the laptops to have some form of network connection, but it does not require Internet access since the technology uses peer-to-peer connections. Users with most versions of Vista will be able to start a session; those with Home Basic can join a session but not start one of their own.

Similar ad-hoc networks were possible in Windows XP and other versions of the operating system, but with Vista, there is a more robust means to connect nearby users, as well as the built-in MeetingSpace program.

The feature, which had been known as Windows Collaboration, was present in prior test versions of Windows, but Microsoft has both renamed it and worked to make it more stable in the Beta 2 version of Vista that was released recently.

Allowing PCs to connect to one another does raise security challenges -- the main one being that people may be duped into connecting to someone they are not looking to share with. The issue also exists in XP, where peer-to-peer options offer little beyond the name of the network and are listed alongside wireless Internet options.

But with Vista, Microsoft says it has put in place measures to ensure all parties know what they are getting into and are willing participants. People can choose whether to be seen or not in the "People Near Me" feature, and they can also decline or accept any particular invitation. Meanwhile, those hosting a session can choose not to broadcast their meeting and can also require people to use a password to keep out virtual party crashers.

The intent of MeetingSpace is to allow nearby participants to communicate. That means that the technology is good for a gathering where all parties are in the same physical location. But for the case where one or more people are "dialing in" to the meeting, a Web conferencing product like WebEx or Microsoft's LiveMeeting is still needed.

With Vista, any application will have access to this type of presence information. Microsoft’s quandary is that it is the target of government regulators (especially in Europe) and anything it puts into the operating system becomes regulated. Hence, it's our belief that the company will keep specific applications like Live Meeting as applications (servers) which they can continue to sell, and which will not be regulated. But Microsoft will move some of the more general features of Live Meeting, like screen or application sharing, into the operating system for 1-to-1 or small group collaboration, group writing or document review.

Microsoft Communicator integrates IM, VoIP, telephony, video and web conferencing into one server. It also acts as the preferred front-end to LCS 2007 (also due out in Q1 2007). Ultimately it will let an employee access a company’s IM system from any device connected to the Internet (and these days using wi-fi, that could be a cell phone or PDA, too).

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