Collaboration Software Races To Keep Up

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When Attachmate announced late last month that it had agreed to buy Novell for $2.2 billion, many said it marked the end of an era. Indeed, in many ways it does: Novell was there at the beginning of the information technology reseller channel, it has been one of Microsoft's fiercest competitors, and it has been and continues to be a leader in client/server computing.

But Attachmate's takeover of Novell also happens at the beginning of another era in IT -- an era in which independent software vendors are racing to keep up with the demands of cross-platform, enterprise collaboration. As organizations are relying less on e-mail to communicate, they are also relying more on collaboration solutions. That's great -- except that the demands of enterprise collaboration, as well as use patterns, continue to change dramatically. And so vendors are racing to ensure their collaboration solutions continue to keep up with it all.

In the past year, we've seen major advances in Microsoft's approach to collaboration both with SharePoint 2010 as well as major improvements to its Office 2010 and Office Live solutions. Other players, including IBM Lotus and Google, continue to -- or at least try to -- weave new pieces of functionality into their line card.

And Novell -- almost at the very time the Attachmate announcement was made -- launched a beta version of a hosted or on-premise collaboration solution called Vibe, which shows significant promise.
In this issue of CRNtech, we are offering this snapshot of collaboration solutions. It's only a snapshot, really, because the landscape, functionality and features continue to come from developers at breakneck pace.

Here is a look, solution by solution, at what may be the industry's top collaboration solutions and how they may fit right now into the needs of small, midsize or large enterprises:

NEXT: Novell VibeNovell Vibe

Vibe recently was launched into beta mode, but it's easy to see that this may become a very significant collaboration solution. Waltham, Mass.-based Novell appears to have taken the best elements of both Twitter and Facebook and wrapped them into a business-focused, online solution.

Vibe allows users to create business profiles -- as one would in Twitter or Facebook. It allows for the following of others, on-the-fly group creation, message threads, private messages and online file sharing. The file-sharing feature is really nice, designed to allow for the drag-and-drop of a specific file into a field in a user’s main console. Once uploaded, a file can be shared with specific people.

Novell calls Vibe a "social collaboration platform." (Is there any other kind of collaboration?) But unlike other solutions, Vibe provides workspace areas in a user’s console that allow for document and file creation, sharing and contact management. Vibe provides a presence-awareness tool that informs others in your network of your availability.

But what makes Novell's solution work so well is that it appears to have filtered out all of the distraction and nonsense that you'd find in other online collaboration sites. It's also snappy and fast (perhaps owing to the fact that its primary browser of support is Google Chrome and, interestingly, Vibe will not work in Internet Explorer).

When considering collaboration solutions, the Test Center highly recommends examining Vibe's potential and whether it can solve a specific business issue. If it's not lost in the Attachmate shuffle, Vibe could have a nice future.

NEXT: Microsoft SharePoint 2010, OfficeLive

Microsoft SharePoint 2010, OfficeLive

Microsoft comes clean about SharePoint 2010 in the product's on-premise installation documentation: "The logical result of SharePoint Server's flexibility and richness can be a high degree of complexity around installing and configuring SharePoint Server correctly."

We've been preaching this for some time, but the two biggest enemies of small or midsize business when it comes to information technology are cost and complexity. And SharePoint as an on-premise application has its share of complexity. But Microsoft, as part of its drive to place every single element of its product line in the cloud, now provides a hosted version of SharePoint that eliminates the complexity and allows an enterprise to get up and running with this application in just a few minutes.

Not that we don't like SharePoint 2010 as an on-premise solution. It's a snappy, easy installation on an industry-standard server (we'd recommend a dual-CPU server with at least 16 GB of RAM). But it still requires a fair amount of patience to configure; in the CRN Test Center lab it was a slow process that took multiple attempts to get right and in working order. However, it's still an improvement over previous iterations of SharePoint.

While SharePoint 2010 should really be the province of midsize to large enterprises, Microsoft has done a stellar job of integrating elements of SharePoint's functionality into its OfficeLive product. The interface, ability to share and collaborate on basic office documents, conduct instant messaging conversations and more do what SharePoint sets out to do: enable collaboration.

The hosted application, as part of Microsoft Online Services, can be integrated with online versions of Office Communication Server, Exchange and Live Meeting. Administrators have full user control via a robust management console. A half-hour after establishing an account (the trial version we used supported 20 licenses), it's possible to have an enterprise sharing tasks, calendar information, files, instant messages and threaded conversations. Microsoft estimates the cost to an enterprise at $5.25 per user, per month for hosted SharePoint.

NEXT: Google Apps

NEXT: Google Apps

The biggest news this year about Google Collaboration isn't about what application it's offering, but about what application it's not offering: Google Wave.

While the online search, tech and tools giant continues to offer Google Apps with collaboration functions in Google Docs, Google Presentation and Google Spreadsheet, among others, Google Wave was a somewhat bold beta test/experiment into realtime collaboration, file sharing and group chat. While the site still works, it will soon be shut down -- the result, Google said earlier this year, of somewhat disappointing adoption. The company said it would find ways to incorporate the technology and functionality of Wave into other offerings in the future.

The failure of Wave to catch on, it appears, had less to do with the impressive technology that Google provided than with the collaboration use patterns that have been the default habits for the past several years. But in the here and now, Google appears to be more focused in other areas such as its forthcoming Chrome operating system than with keeping up with the likes of Microsoft or Novell.

In terms of pure collaboration for enterprises, Google Apps does not offer the robust features and functions of SharePoint (on premise or online), and its far-flung offerings like Google Buzz, Google Chat and Google Groups do not offer the cohesion that Novell is showing with Vibe.

NEXT: IBM LotusLive

IBM LotusLive

We've previously reviewed and recommended IBM's LotusLive offerings -- including its LotusLive Meetings and LotusLive iNotes. IBM was one of the first major software companies to begin providing Web-based "mash-up" services five years ago and has over time ported much of what it has learned into its cloud-based, LotusLive suite of offerings.

Since then, IBM has continued to add functionality and improvements to LotusLive. For example, LotusLive Meetings -- which allows for interactive, online meetings with whiteboards, desktop and file sharing, audio and chat -- now provides mobile apps for both BlackBerry and iPhone. We downloaded the iPhone app, for example, to find that it's now possible to log into a LotusLive interactive meeting from your iPhone. Setup is as simple as could be, and entering a LotusLive meeting via iPhone is as easy as downloading the app from the Apple iTunes App Store, entering login and meeting ID information, and getting in. Those on the road are no longer the forgotten children of the workgroup when it comes to live, realtime collaboration. LotusLive Mobile is in beta.

IBM sets a baseline rate of $10 per month, per user, for its LotusLive Suite for online collaboration, which includes iNotes, Meetings and collaboration tools.

In addition to LotusLive, IBM provides LotusLive Labs -- which, among other things, will provide preview looks at the company's forthcoming Lotus Project Concord -- an online, collaborative document creation and sharing application. (Look out, Google Docs.)

When it comes to online collaboration solutions for enterprises of all sizes, IBM LotusLive is a must-consider.

The Bottom Line

Software vendors are making it impossible to not build robust, collaboration capabilities into day-to-day business. Where cost and complexity were challenges in the past, those challenges have clearly begun to evaporate.

Cloud-based (online) collaboration services present the same questions as any other cloud-based application or service. Is security strong enough? How about availability and performance? What about uptime? Can these services be easily managed?

For all of the above collaboration offerings, the answers are essentially the same. We found no major performance issues, all come with sound (if not basic) management and administrative tools, security is for the most part industry-standard for online collaboration, and ease of use is steady.

Microsoft SharePoint and IBM LotusLive remain top collaboration solutions for enterprises of all sizes and give solution providers opportunities to deliver significant value, service and differentiation to an entire organization.

From a functionality standpoint, Google needs to pick up its game. Not only have IBM Lotus and Microsoft expanded their enterprise collaboration gap with Google, they are now driving their differentiated technology into online productivity. For Microsoft, the company has driven much of its sound, snappy collaboration technology into its Office franchise -- creating what is a much more seamless synergy between Office 2010 and Microsoft OfficeLive -- in some respects with much greater functionality than Google Docs. It's the same way with IBM Lotus and its LotusLive; Project Concord would add a productivity layer to its online collaboration suite that would match if not surpass Google Apps.

Even Novell, with its Vibe collaboration offering, looks much more inviting in many ways than Google's offerings.

In the coming six months to a year, we would like to see more of a drive to bring these core collaboration tools to handhelds and tablets, as the major use-pattern shift toward touch and mobility continues to pick up momentum. That also would provide greater opportunities to introduce functionality like geo-location and geo-tagging to collaboration, which could be incredibly powerful to enterprises of all sizes and types. And, to better address enterprises' requirements of additional security, we'd like to see encrypted collaboration introduced into these platforms beyond the password-protection and user administration that exists today.

Given the speed at which these vendors seem to improve these collaboration solutions, we don't think that's a stretch.

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