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A conversation with Ray Ozzie

@3097 CHICAGO -- Ray Ozzie is undoubtedly a deity in world of collaboration. The creator of Lotus Notes has been recognized as one of the world's most innovative software developers. Now, though, Ozzie says e-mail may have hit its limit. That's why he's so bullish about peer-to-peer collaboration and the company he runs that enables it, Groove Networks Inc. We talked with Ozzie in front of an audience of IT professionals at the recent Enterprise Messaging Decisions conference.

It sounds like you started Groove Networks back in 1997 to address a shortcoming in Lotus Notes. What is that shortcoming?
In 1995 or 1996, we noticed … that the leading edge [Lotus] customers were pushing the limits of Notes' capabilities within their organization. We were beginning to use Notes in a context that we hadn't seen much before, which is in an inter-enterprise context. Companies were trying to start to use Notes in more of a supply-chain fashion. These were big companies that were essentially mandating their partners to use Notes within their organizations.

Going beyond e-mail

Ozzie's Beverly, Mass.-based Groove Networks Inc.'s collaboration product is simply called Groove, and is part application and part platform. The company says Groove lets most any program become a collaborative platform.
 
Using Groove, one member of an online team could open a file on a client computer without the benefit of a central server, and share that file with others in an online workgroup. Groove looks like a Web browser and is accompanied by a window denoting which group members are online and working within the shared workplace.

Some have questioned the technology's viability when it comes to ease of management and security.

Ozzie said Groove integrates with companies' directory software, including Notes and Active Directory, and centrally controls identity issuance and patching. Version 3, which is being beta tested now, Groove will include software to make it easier to coral data into a centralized storage server.

Conference attendee Jonathan Barrett, senior product manager with Digex Inc., said Groove is valuable because it allows him to collaborate and transmit documents back and forth with business partners without involving the IT department.

Through Groove, Barrett said, individual projects are neatly organized on his desktop. Each Groove file contains all of the discussion threads, documents and collaborator information for a specific group project.

"For this one project, I had relationships outside of standard e-mail and phone calls because we had documents to deliver," Barrett said. "It allowed us to have a unified, collaborative space to work on those documents."

I don't know if you can put yourself back into that era, but it was fairly painful. The organizations [receiving the mandates] were generally smaller to midsized organizations that didn't want to take Notes, but it was being dictated by larger companies … Just getting all these IT companies to agree to put it in, and [dealing with] the connectivity and security issues, was extremely painful.

The concept behind Groove came from an assumption, or belief, that the fundamental nature of business was changing from a centralized model with large companies that were firmly integrated to essentially a separation of corporations, working in a more distributed fashion. Notes, essentially, was built for a large global enterprise environment, not necessarily for the task of flowing data in an inter-enterprise manner. So that was the germination of Groove in late 1997. Notes was revolutionary because it was fundamentally different. It gave workers a new way to collaborate. Do you expect Groove to achieve those same levels of innovation?
Notes is really [made up of] two fundamental things: the mail infrastructure and a collaborative rapid application development infrastructure. Groove does not have something equivalent to mail, which was a big thing driving Notes into many organizations. But in terms of a collaborative solutions platform, I think that Groove is going to have a much greater impact than Notes, specifically because it's starting at the edge, and it's much easier to deploy. [It's for businesses] that need to deal with problems in another organization or that need to deal with a highly mobile workforce without mating large scale enterprise infrastructure decisions in order to get value returned very quickly. You recently said that "e-mail is showing its age and limitations." Can you elaborate a bit on that?
I think the audience [at Enterprise Messaging Decisions] is probably better qualified than I to answer this question. But, from my standpoint, as a vendor, the e-mail environment is a very tough environment. Viruses and spam are significant issues and there are no natural limits built into the architecture of e-mail from day one that would … address these problems. We are very good in the industry at building Band-Aids to patch various issues. But, fundamentally, I believe that for systems to be secure, security has to be built in from the very beginning. The fundamental architecture of e-mail is just simply not conducive to building a secure environment.

There are other limitations. [E-mail] isn't fundamentally built as an application platform. And really, this concept that we will be managing as individuals, all of the projects and all of the relationships that we're dealing with from within one inbox, just doesn't scale. We're in a world of information overload and it will be perpetually that way. There is nothing that is going to slow down the fact that we are working electronically with many people. Individuals are feeling that overload, and they're experimenting with different tools such as instant messaging, blogs … things that are alternatives to doing work with one another online but outside of e-mail. Where will folks in the enterprise do that sort of work and that sort of collaboration?
Notes in its era was a [a combination of] mail directory infrastructure, collaborative rapid application development, team spaces and application server. Many of these things that were tied together are now factoring out into more appropriate application servers such as WebSphere and Microsoft Portal Server … Those applications are taking up collaborative functions contextually within themselves. Messaging itself is turning into more of a commodity type of infrastructure platform. Directory is now being factored out from mail. I think that at this moment in time IT people are looking for more help with the issues inherent in e-mail infrastructure. That collaborative application infrastructure should probably be thought of separately from e-mail. As the father of Notes, how do you feel that your offspring, if you will, has performed in the market? What is your take on Lotus' strategy and the future that it has outlined for Notes and Domino?
Let me say that I couldn't possibly be anything but incredibly happy with the success [of Notes] … In particular, I think it has been extremely competitive with its primary competitor, Exchange. In the mail realm, Notes has had a lot of success within large enterprises and Exchange has had a lot of success in the midmarket. I think it's great for customers to have two choices.

In terms of strategy moving forward, you know Notes was a success starting [when development began] in '84, and I'm very proud of the team that built it because the architecture of the product has withstood the test of time in many dimensions. But time has changed a lot of the things that we worry about in terms of application server capabilities, which really do belong in app servers now. There are much richer development capabilities in the app server environment by virtue of all the innovation that has happened in the Web market.

Surely, [products like] WebSphere are better places to build those new applications. In that realm, I do believe that IBM is doing a good thing in including things like better integration between of Workplace and WebSphere within the Notes environment. The most important thing, though, is the reality that customers have a huge investment in Notes apps, and those apps shouldn't break. They simply shouldn't be broken by anything that the vendor does. Whereas two years ago, I think [IBM Lotus] was more aggressively promoting migration to a different infrastructure, I'm very pleased to hear they're trying to strike a balance between [customers' investments] and a changing world.

TechTarget is the organizer of Enterprise Messaging Decisions 2004 and owner of the family of Web sites that includes SearchExchange.com.

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