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Collaboration Is Key For Microsoft And Lotus

New tools let users easily design custom portals
Microsoft and Lotus are shifting their focus from simple messaging to collaboration. Microsoft says its next version of SharePoint portal-building software, due in the first half of next year, will be designed to take advantage of its forthcoming Windows .Net application server and incorporate XML-based Web-services standards, making it easier for in-house developers to create custom portals for their companies.

SharePoint Portal Server 2.0, which lets users aggregate information across a company, and SharePoint Team Services 2.0, designed for smaller workgroups, will use the application-integration tools built into .Net Server. Microsoft says it plans to ship the much-delayed .Net Server software by year's end. It was originally scheduled for release late last year.

The new SharePoint software will also feature improved search and information-aggregation tools and will let users send E-mail to team members from within a SharePoint site.

Companies can quickly achieve a return on investment using the software, says Ian Campbell, an analyst at Nucleus Research. According to a Nucleus study, Anderson Power Products, an electrical-parts manufacturer in Sterling, Mass., achieved a 267% return on investment in five months after installing SharePoint. The company used the software to create a means for ad hoc project teams to collaborate. Nucleus says its numbers reflect increased employee communication and productivity at Anderson.

The move to the .Net environment should make it even easier for customers to connect the software to existing applications, Campbell says.

Microsoft is competing with a number of software vendors already in the market for portal-building tools, including IBM's Lotus division, which this summer will release new versions of its Sametime real-time collaboration and Quickplace workspace tools, followed by an update of its Domino collaborative application server and Notes E-mail and database client. New features include a distributed, Web-based architecture for Sametime; real-time capabilities built into Quickplace; and better integration between Domino and other Lotus products.

Unicco Service Co., a $600 million provider of facilities services, is developing a customer portal, Myunicco.com, that will rely on Lotus technologies to automate processes and interactions. The Auburndale, Mass., company is using Notes to develop electronic forms with embedded workflows as well as Quickplace to drive collaboration and information sharing between employees and customers.

It's an ambitious initiative for a 20-person IT staff operating with a $3.3 million budget. But a collaborative portal is a competitive necessity, says Jeff Peterson, VP of information technology: "You're not going to be invited into bids unless you have a well-thought-out E-business strategy."