Collaboration nirvana: Are we there yet?

Microsoft's shed of collaboration tools and technologies is big -- but some analysts and customers think the company could do a better job organizing it and making it more customer-friendly.

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Microsoft Corp. has put together a collection of communications and collaboration technologies that are geared to help end users across an enterprise work together more efficiently.

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The collection is broad. There are content servers, multiple forms of e-mail clients and servers and instant messengers, collaborative packages like SharePoint and server-based project managers. There are deals and relationships with companies like Groove Networks for peer-to-peer collaboration and Webex for Web conferencing.

But even though parts of the company are working hard at integrating some of the technologies, the perception outside of Redmond is that Microsoft lacks a vision for pulling together all the communications and collaboration tools.

Users and analysts said Microsoft's products address specific functions, such as instant messaging, document management, or offering some type of work flow. But the company tends to divide everything into product groups, and the relationships are with products in that group. This grouping practice may not be the most useful way to serve customers.

"They should be looking at everything in terms of the customer experience," said David Marshak, senior vice president at Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston consulting firm.

Some groups, such as the Office division, are pulling together content management, document management, teamware and portal applications. In fact, SharePoint Team Services, a Web collaboration tool which helps create ad hoc workgroups, will integrate with SharePoint Portal Server, an application with publishing and collaboration features like document management. Team Services ships in other products and will begin shipping with Sharepoint Portal Server as well.

Some collaborative applications, including content management, will be integrated with Office. Communications technologies like IM will be launched within the applications, so SharePoint Team Services users will be able to see if other members are online, according to Trina Seinfeld, product manager for SharePoint.

Customers are starting to express real interest in working online with business partners, but many still feel that today there isn't a comfortable or secure way of doing so. Some customers are waiting for better product integration.

"Ultimately, the quest is to have one product that does everything you want," said Scott Saunders, director of systems technology at Paxson Communications Corp., West Palm Beach, Fla. He added that he recognizes when products are wed, the marriage doesn't always go so well.

Some collaboration software, as diverse as whiteboards or instant messaging, is sneaking into the enterprise because employees want an easier way to communicate with peers.

Technologies like instant messaging circulate by word of mouth until they reach a tipping point and become a company standard, said Peter Osbourne, group manager for advanced technology at Dollar Rent-a-Car Systems Inc., Tulsa, Okla.

Some technologies like IM are insecure and unsupported. To that end, enterprise instant messaging systems coming down the pike may be the answer. But the appearance of these technologies today has put a lot of pressure on IT, said Matt Cain, an analyst at the Meta Group, Stamford, Conn.

"If they prohibit IM today, well, what's the alternative?" Cain said. "They need a secure, closed and auditable messaging system."

Like Microsoft, IT administrators today are challenged to pull together their own collaborative strategy that makes sense for their company, particularly one that is secure and supportable. Some experts say that IT managers should not have to support renegade technologies, but they can choose one that is sanctioned and make it a corporate standard.

Larry Hawes, an analyst at The Delphi Group, a Boston consulting firm, said that what's driving this strategy is the need to centralize investments and show top executives the value of an application.

"If technologies are coming in through the back door, how can you prove to a senior manager that there is a return on investment?" Hawes said.

But it's unlikely that corporations can stop everything that flies in under the IT radar. Microsoft's Seinfeld said the company continues to see more collaboration tools come into enterprises through the back door, since collaboration needs differ across a corporation.

Microsoft has produced an array of collaboration technologies. In content creation and management, there are the Content Management Server, Office XP with its messaging client, SharePoint Portal Server and SharePoint Team Services and Exchange public folders. Plus the company owns roughly a 19% stake in Groove, a Beverly, Mass.-based peer-to-peer collaboration platform. There is also a new server-based version of Project, built on the .NET platform, that extends project management features to the enterprise.

Analysts said that with .NET, many integration issues may disappear because some technologies could end up as part of its .NET architecture. One example of this is the instant messaging service based on the Session Initiation Protocol that Microsoft is planning for Windows XP.

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