Collaboration's Convergence: Good News for IT Executives and End Users - InformationWeek
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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek

Collaboration's Convergence: Good News for IT Executives and End Users

Not surprisingly, as collaboration applications are maturing, they’re also literally getting bigger—stuffed with more features and functionality, integrated with complementary products, and backed by vendors that are acquiring or partnering with other vendors, or simply snagging talent from the competition and relying on it to help build out their brand. Such consolidation and convergence often allow users to get all (or at least most of) their collaboration needs met from a single source. The result is sometimes valuable and sometimes not, but it’s almost always interesting. And these days, it’s happening almost weekly.

For Exhibit A, consider WebEx. The provider of hosted Web conferencing services earlier this month announced it will acquire privately held, which makes asynchronous collaboration applications for small and mid-size businesses. Its apps are designed specifically for team collaboration, project management and partner coordination. Under the terms of the agreement, WebEx will pay approximately $45 million in cash for, which will become a wholly owned subsidiary.

The result is that WebEx will now be able to offer both real-time and asynchronous collaboration capabilities, including document sharing, group scheduling, task management, discussion forums and contact directories. This is new for a conferencing vendor; usually, the process works the other way around, as makers of asynchronous technologies add real-time tools to the mix. And it takes WebEx a significant step further than its competition in the hosted conferencing space, addressing some of the issues users face as they collaborate in virtual environments—namely, how to manage the work they produce, and the people with whom they produce it.

IBM Lotus has a similar offering, thanks to the deep bench of collaborative tools it can offer users in one suite. We expect other collaboration vendors—including Microsoft (via SharePoint) and telephony vendors (via partnerships)—to follow suit.

Convoq, another Web conferencing vendor, is taking a different approach to convergence. The company is planning to extend its presence-powered instant collaboration platform to users by integrating Convoq’s ASAP (As Soon As Present) product into the Salesforce interface. The goal is to let users determine the real-time availability of customers, partners and colleagues, then launch Web meetings directly from within Salesforce. It’s admirable, and it’s relatively unique; many vendors are talking about embedding presence and collaborative capabilities in enterprise applications (and the business processes those apps support), but few have actually done so.

Or, consider the news that IBM signed an agreement to acquire PureEdge Solutions Inc. , a privately held Canadian company that develops electronic forms to enable the capture, process, and display of back-end corporate data and applications in a user-friendly, customizable format. IBM will integrate e-forms into its collaboration portfolio, including Lotus and IBM Workplace software applications. Although e-forms are not inherently collaborative, integrating them into a collaboration toolset is a wise move—it makes sharing data that much easier, and supports the need for better and more varied collaboration among dispersed employees.

Less innovative but just as critical is last month’s deal between IBM and Avaya, in which the companies agreed to integrate Avaya’s “click-to-call” capabilities into Lotus’ e-mail, IM and Web conferencing applications. IBM will also integrate the audio conferencing delivered in Avaya Meeting Exchange with Lotus’ Web-conferencing solutions, so participants can see who’s speaking, dial out to new participants, mute lines and control volume.

The integrated audio is built on a common telephony service provider interface (TSPI) designed by IBM, and is scheduled to be available in Lotus Sametime in the fourth quarter of 2005 and in Lotus Notes and Domino in the first quarter of 2006. Integration with IBM Workplace Collaboration Services is expected in the future.

The news is hardly bleeding edge: Once in effect, the capabilities will put IBM on par with the other leading vendors in the real-time communications dashboard (RTCD) space. Microsoft already partners with voice players such as Siemens and Mitel to offer similar capabilities, and, of course, the leading telephony vendors (Avaya, Nortel) built their own RTCDs around voice. Although IBM is doing some other very interesting things around real-time collaboration, and has many innovative plans for the presence-driven future, this is not one of them. Still, the move was absolutely necessary, and it’s good for companies that use Notes and Workplace and don’t want to switch as they look to integrate voice into their overall communications suites. Integrating audio with other communications tools adds value to both technologies, and helps bridge the gap among virtual workers.

Missing are partnerships that would benefit Lotus customers who want to get their voice capabilities from a vendor other than Avaya. An open SIP infrastructure could better speed that process along.

Other recent news from IBM highlights another trend in enterprise collaboration: The vendor is offering Weblog Preview, a new blogging tool, on its AlphaWorks developers Web site. It will work with the Workplace 2.5 and Workplace Collaboration Services 2.5 releases and includes integrated search, security and user roles, as well as an Atom and an RSS syndication feed, rich-text editing, the ability to add comments, and archiving support. The vendor also will deliver an application-development component for blogging in the upcoming Workplace Designer 2.5 release.

IBM has long offered blogging capabilities in Domino, but by integrating them into its Workplace tools the vendor is building out its collaboration technologies—and, perhaps, making Workplace a more popular upgrade option for Notes/Domino customers who are looking for across-the-board feature parity. Still, although many employees run very popular blogs, and certain teams or project groups use them (and wikis) to brainstorm ideas, most companies have not yet deployed blogging as an enterprise-sanctioned collaboration technology.

IBM can’t claim all the action. Two former Lotus developers have joined the Microsoft Exchange team recently, potentially boosting that platform’s collaboration chops. Julio Estrada, who worked on Domino Web Server and QuickPlace while at Lotus, and Bob Congdon, who was at IBM working on WorkPlace Designer until recently, have both joined Microsoft. After leaving Lotus, Estrada founded collaboration vendor Kubi Software; he now serves as an Exchange Server software architect, while Congdon is an Exchange design engineer.

The moves are further evidence of Microsoft’s intention to tap the minds and skills of players in the collaboration space, and they follow the vendor’s acquisition of Groove Networks, after which Lotus Notes guru Ray Ozzie joined as a CTO. Microsoft Exchange Server has not traditionally served as a platform for collaborative applications (that functionality lives in SharePoint Portal Server and SharePoint Portal Services), but Microsoft would seem to have other plans for the e-mail server going forward.

It’s too soon to tell just how the software giant will leverage these and other resources, but it does highlight the convergence of applications across platforms and infrastructures. It also might position Microsoft more squarely against its old messaging foe, Lotus Notes, which in its latest guise (now called Workplace Collaboration Services—will this name finally stick?) offers more connected collaboration tools than ever. (Separate, but also interesting: OpenText’s new Livelink ECM Document Archiving for Microsoft SharePoint is a content archiving solution for documents in Windows SharePoint Services sites.)

That e-mail/collaboration integration even raises interesting possibilities for Microsoft Corp.’s recent acquisition of privately held FrontBridge Technologies Inc., a provider of managed services for e-mail security, compliance and availability. The acquisition lets Microsoft deliver a service for fighting spam and viruses, as well as enforcing compliance, and ensuring e-mail availability in the case of a disaster. Microsoft’s emphasis on compliance shows it’s focused on a growing and as yet largely undefined need among companies to archive and retrieve e-mail (and increasingly IM) messages. The news follows the vendor’s acquisition of Sybari, an on-net anti-spam/anti-virus software company.

The deal supports the ongoing security-focus almost all companies have today—and Microsoft’s own realization that it needs to protect corporate e-mail systems any way it can. Can its own collaborative applications be far behind? IM is already a target for viruses and spam; Web conferencing and VOIP have their own compliance and security risks lurking just around the bend. Although the vendor has often been criticized for putting features and marketing in front of security, few vendors have more of an interest in preserving the sanctity of messaging than Microsoft. And fewer still can leverage that technology in other applications.

As IT executives deploy collaboration technologies, they must start looking beyond the basics. IM and Web conferencing began as grassroots applications brought in by employees—blogging and wikis are the next-generation of these tools, and can offer real benefits if used correctly. What’s more, as employees collaborate over distance and time, they’ll want more convenient and better-purposed tools at their disposal. But beware: processes and procedures really count here. And security should, as always, be top of mind whenever new apps are being deployed.

Meanwhile, vendors need to think outside the box. Adding new technology to collaboration apps makes sense, but so does looking at new ways of presenting and protecting data. It’s critical that vendors and users alike consider the ramifications of the new capabilities driven by convergence.

Sr. Vice President and Founding Partner, Melanie Turek, is a reknowned expert in enterprise application integration software, collaboration technologies, and business intelligence at Nemertes Research. For the past 10 years, Ms. Turek has worked closely with hundreds of senior IT executives across a range of industries. She also has in-depth experience with business-process engineering, project management, and productivity and performance enhancement.

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