Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Will the real groupware please stand up?


By Ron Herardian

It may seem bizarre to ask the question "What is groupware?" when there are millions of users of Lotus Notes, but it is a serious question because a strong argument can be made that "groupware" does not exist. Iris Associates and then Lotus practically created groupware in the late 80's and early 90's and it goes without saying that they did a lot of things right. However, what we called groupware then is not the same as what we mean by the word groupware now. Lotus has changed the definition not once but four different times.

This article looks at the evolution of groupware, breaking it down into four distinct phases, discusses the challenges at each phase, as well as what Lotus has done to meet those challenges. In conclusion, the article considers the major market opportunities and future directions of Lotus Notes and Domino.

Why groupware doesn't exist

It is important to understand that "groupware" is not a technology and it is not a product. Back in the 1980's we already had email, newsgroups, document management, group scheduling, and miscellaneous communications and collaboration tools. Retracing the origins of groupware is somewhat like retracing the origins of the Macintosh UI to Xerox Park's laboratories.

Some of the applications that evolved in the 1980s in the broad category of communication and collaboration developed in the Internet community, others have their precursors in PC-based bulletin board systems (BBSs) such as FidoNet which incorporated email, automated scheduling and routing, and primitive workflow-like capabilities, and some developed alongside early microcomputer LANs. In the second half of the 1980's, collaborative computing applications came to appear in the Macintosh market and although they were not particularly successful, the idea of "groupware" was born. [And, of course, earlier than that was Plato, perhaps the Rosetta Stone of groupware. -- DG]

The groupware concept was to take various applications and functionality under the umbrella of communication and collaboration and integrate them together as a common set of services or a single client application. Interestingly, the term "groupware" is a categorical term referring to that class of applications used for user-to-user communication and collaboration. Groupware can represent a wide range of applications and methods of integration but it is not a particular product or a specific technology.

In other words, the word "groupware" is like the word "food". If you went to the grocery store and bought a box simply labeled "food," you wouldn't know what foods the box contained, how they would taste, or if they were nutritious. This is what decision-makers face, and what sales people must overcome, when customers buy the box that says "Domino". In other words, if a customer is looking for a product or technology called "groupware" they won't find one because it doesn't exist: it is the box and not any of the many and different things inside.