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7/20/2006
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The Collaboration Client: A New Paradigm

Today, most team-based collaboration tools are browser-based.  This makes sense from a development perspective, because it saves the developer both money and resources.  Today there are few client-based solutions, and the ones that exist are not very advanced (with the exception of Groove).  I think Microsoft’s grip on the desktop has forced companies to take an alternate strategy and produce browser-based solutions. 

When talking to sales people from various collaboration vendors, they tell me that customers always request an offline client.  This begs the question, "Is a client-based collaboration tool preferred over a browser-based tool?"  Here is some history to the debate, my thoughts on what customers really want, and how vendors should evolve their products to meet their customer’s offline and online collaboration needs.

One of the most prevalent and commoditized collaboration software technologies today is email. People use email to communicate and collaboration daily with other users located in their same building and across the world.  My experience and interviews have validated that users still predominantly depend on a client such as Outlook, Lotus, or GroupWise as their primary platforms for collaboration.  Some new email products have emerged that are just browser-based, but most customers still prefer a client that allows them to store and access their emails offline or online.  Collaboration companies, such as Microsoft, have attempted to integrate their systems with their email client, but the task was not very easy.  Also, companies like IBM overwhelmed their users with functionality that users end up not using.  Some specific problems these companies encountered included:   

  • Technology design. The email client was designed around an individual and the emails were focused around individual communication -- a very different paradigm than a system that is designed to fit the needs of a team.   

  • Challenging user experience. Building team capabilities into an user-centered messaging platform confuses the user and does not facilitate team collaboration.  Users felt they already had too much information and functionality to handle with the current email system, and having to spend more time going through extra steps to take advantage of the new team functionality was not optimal.
    
  • Product architecture. Some email systems were not built to accommodate additional collaboration technology and adding new features would slow down the system and increase the complexity.

Consequently, vendors started to create new systems that focused only on collaboration.  The thinking was that users already had one client and would not want two clients, but would want to have their dominant mail client integrated with other collaboration systems through links, shared interface features, or portals.  Also, the prevalent thought was that users would participate in multiple collaborative environments, such as email, instant message, web conference, office application, and enterprise applications, and that an online system would best support this integration.  

Today this is the prevailing view, and several vendors have started to tie into Microsoft Office (Interwoven), Open Office (O3Spaces), Exchange (Open Text and SharePoint), instant messaging clients (WebEx and AOL), and others. The amount of work required to tie into different systems became very costly to accomplish and standards never were created to facilitate integration and interoperability.  Although vendors continue to integrate their products, acquire new technologies and improve their online experience, customers still continue to ask, “Do you provide an offline client?”

After pondering this unfulfilled desire, I have come to believe that vendors should approach the problem in a different manner if they want to fulfill their customer’s needs.  Instead of continuing to support the idea of integrating multiple collaboration systems, vendors should focus on redesigning the messaging client that (1) focuses on a team member’s collaboration needs, (2) allows users to read their messages through a collaborative view, and (3) integrates with online collaboration systems and other systems that the user may require.  

If vendors could provide users with a single client that would fulfill their collaboration and messaging needs, then the messaging clients would cease to exist and users would spend most of their time in the collaboration system -- which would increase collaboration and knowledge sharing.  Maybe then users would be satisfied?  But to achieve this goal, a vendor needs to recreate the client.  This is a different philosophy then the one vendors are using today.  Many are trying to get away from the client, or copy the functionality of current clients within a browser.  This paradigm is a shift to the market’s current direction, but I believe that the first to market with this new product may gain an advantage and replace many mail systems.

To further illustrate, think of a collaboration client that would organize your environment by project and include a personal space for a user’s individual needs.  Emails sent to the client regarding a specific project would be automatically filed within the projects’s workspace, and subscription messages would be filed into a workspace specific to the type of content included in the message.  Filing emails into workspaces would allow users to view the emails in context, access additional content included in the workspace, contact a team member, view who is online, and immediately react to the email by creating a team task, appointment, or starting a real-time meeting.  Personal messages would be sent to the user’s personal workspace.  Order would be kept via workspace categorization.  A summary view could also be provided via RSS feeds to the personal workspace dashboard that would allow user to filter and prioritize received information and content changes.  An intelligent, well-organized, context-based, feature-rich, and knowledge-friendly system would be the result of this integrated and collaboration-focused client environment.     

There are eight vendors today that could lead this client evolution:

1. Microsoft. Microsoft’s acquisition of Groove places them as a runner up, but it seems like Microsoft is investing little resources in this Groove transformation.  For now they are focused on their SharePoint and Live Office product releases.  

2. IBM. IBM seems to be investing considerably in their Workplace Managed Client.  Email has already been integrated with their client.  IBM’s hope is that the new managed client will provide existing Lotus customers a superior option to IBM’s competitors, if the customer chooses to migrate off of Lotus.  Clients, especially IBM customers, should consider IBM’s Workplace Managed Client as an option.  

3. Google.  Google’s desktop client, which primarily focuses on content and search, can be positioned for collaboration.  Especially since Google has a calendar, email, word processor and other tools and content that could come together within a new client.      

4. EMC. EMC’s eRoom has several offline file capabilities and could be extended and modified to fit this offline client experience.  The question is whether EMC will make Documentum their priority, thereby squeezing resources and smothering innovation in their eRoom product.  

5. Collanos. A new start-up, Collanos is building a heterogeneous collaboration client similar to Groove.  Collanos seems to have a good start, but their product team may not have sufficient collaboration experience to pull off this paradigm change.  Only time will tell, but at least I think they will be purchased by an existing collaboration vendor to develop their offline collaboration client.   

6. Kubi Software. Having been around as long as Groove, Kubi Software offers a peer-to-peer client that is integrated with Outlook.  Kubi has found its niche in servicing the sales force.  Their dependence on Outlook and Windows has niched them to a market and to a platform that may limit their ability to lead the client revolution.    

7. Foldera. As a well funded start-up, Foldera brings together smart email and collaboration features into one platform.  Currently their product is in a limited beta, but recent reviews seem to point to a successful product that will unify collaboration and email.  Their current plans seem to include browser access and a possible client could be in the works.      

8. Virtual Global. Virtual Global has a thick client, but the platform is strongly tied to .Net and does not have peer-to-peer capabilities.  Virtual Global will probably stay focused on online-based collaboration.  

It will be very interesting to see how the offline collaboration client will develop and whether we ever shed the enterprise email client.  My bet is that we will, and one of these eight vendors (or possibly a new vendor) will provide the solution. My belief is that the pendulum will swing again, and the days of the collaboration client will return.    

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