Collaboration is defined as the act of working together. Businesses are built on collaboration. Internally, we collaborate with coworkers on projects and tasks. We collaborate with the outside world when working with customers, suppliers, and others. This is not news, so why is there such a stir about it now? Could it be that the e-business suppliers have some new tools to sell to those mining for e-business gold?
Traditional forms of collaboration involve face-to-face meetings, paper, fax, and the telephone. Today, the ubiquity of the Internet allows for all new methods of collaboration. These new methods havent entirely replaced the more traditional ones, but they do enhance them considerably.
Many software products offer features for collaboration. For the time being, when computers are used as a tool for collaboration, these offerings boil down to a few basic interfaces. Email is probably the most fundamental collaboration tool, but adding additional elements to the equation can enable you to do much more. For example, chat rooms and instant messaging allow immediate communication (as fast as you can type, anyway) over any distance. Custom clients such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook can permit sophisticated collaboration in a specific environment. Electronic whiteboards, such as those offered by tools like Lotus Sametime and Microsoft NetMeeting, allow you to share documents and drawings and mark them up in real time. The addition of voice communications brings collaboration tools back full-circle to telephone functionality, and wireless access means that information is available virtually everywhere (or, from another perspective, information is virtually inescapable).
A common database or work area, where people can work together using an array of access methods, makes all the difference. Collaboration should be as effortless as possible, and participants should be able to choose their favorite interface. If there are any barriers or complications to participants, you run the risk of reducing their contributions.
While these aspects have been the mainstay of collaborative computing, there are some exciting new prospects on the horizon. The traditional model for collaboration tools is to focus on a central server (or servers) that acts as a coordinator. New models, such as the peer-to-peer architecture offered by Groove Networks (see page 27), promise direct collaboration and show some interesting possibilities. At IBMs Solutions 2000 Developer Conference in Las Vegas last year, Lotus CEO Al Zolar demonstrated an impressive use of collaborative software: business-to-consumer collaboration. During the demo, Al pressed a button on a Web page that connected him, via video and sound, to a live customer service
representative who helped him with his hypothetical question. Due to deployment and bandwidth issues, this type of scenario is still somewhat on the fringe, but the demonstration made it clear that business-to-consumer capabilities like this can be built into a site. The $64,000 question is whether companies will find it worthwhile to implement them.
For the last couple of years, Midrange Computing has offered a section called Groupware. Groupware is a term associated with early collaborative software. Groupware systems such as Notes/Domino and Microsoft Exchange provide tools that allow people to share information in the form of discussions and documents. As the capabilities of tools like these have evolved, so too has their function within organizations. Collaboration is the goal of these tools. With that in mind, weve changed the name of the Groupware section to Collaboration. Similar to the name change from AS/400 to the iSeries, this move is more about positioning to reflect current and future trends than about a fundamental change of purpose. Richard Shaler, the sections editor, will continue to provide top-notch information on collaborative applications with a heavy emphasis on what you can do with Domino on OS/400.
Midrange Computing is a collaborative effort of many people striving to make your job easier and your career better. We also provide forums, which you can find at www.midrangecomputing. com/forums, allowing you to collaborate with other midrange professionals on any topic under the sun. Whether you're just getting started with Java and have questions, or you want some advice from an RPG veteran, or even if you want to show the world how smart you are, all are invited. Come join the fun and share your knowledge. We all just may learn something.