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Reworking Online Work

The pioneer of online collaboration explains why peer-to-peer tools are the future.

Ray Ozzie wants to be the software developer who hits the grand slam not once but twice-first with Lotus Notes, and now with Groove, the peer-to-peer collaboration package launched last fall. Earlier this month, contributor Glenn McDonald caught up with the fast-moving Ozzie via e-mail and got his latest thoughts about the future of collaboration. Here’s an edited version.

TR: Why does the world need another collaboration system?

Ozzie: From the personal perspective, “online collaboration,” or knowledge work with others toward a common objective, facilitated by technology, is becoming the rule as opposed to the exception.

We pick our tools based upon our human needs. When we need to communicate simple messages, we choose e-mail. When we need to visually mark up an image, we oftentimes choose fax. When we need to communicate an emotion, such as a sense of urgency or happiness, we frequently choose the phone. Humans are multimedia creatures by nature, and we choose the tool that meets the need.

And sometimes we like to do things “live,” e.g., it’s appropriate to go through pains to get everyone together so that we can discuss something at the same time. But sometimes we need to concentrate, so we consciously disconnect while we work. And sometimes, we even call people when we know that they aren’t near their phone, just because we’d rather leave them a voice message than deal with them in real-time. In other words, humans are multi-temporal creatures by nature, and we choose the tool spontaneously to meet the need.

The list of collaborative requirements goes on and on and on. Sometimes we need to have a private, secure interaction with others, and sometimes we don’t particularly care. Sometimes our interactions are ephemeral, e.g., “lunch?”, and sometimes we need them to persist so that others can join in at a later time, or so that we don’t forget what we did together. Sometimes structure is helpful or necessary in our interactions, e.g., when trying to work through a series of problems or issues, but sometimes an unstructured interaction is best, e.g., when brainstorming or just getting to know someone.

We’ve all longed for a smaller set of tools that met a broader set of needs.

From a personal perspective, our goal has been to create an environment that securely brings together the right people, the relevant information, the appropriate tools to manipulate that information, at the right time-whether spontaneously or over a long period of time. A multimedia, multi-temporal tool that is so natural and easy to use that interactions naturally migrate into it, toward the goal of more productive and effective interaction.

TR: And what’s the organizational view?

Ozzie: The entire business environment has been undergoing a distinct transition from the traditional vertically oriented centralized command-and-control model to more of a decentralized model. The most successful companies are becoming and behaving more like complex adaptive organisms within a larger ecosystem of many, many organizations.

The tools that we have built to date for corporations largely mimic the past centralized model of business: strictly centralized management, strictly centralized control and systems integration.

But whenever two companies need to do business, they typically need to do three things:

1) Connect their information and transaction systems to each other, enabling cooperative business processes

2) Connect their information and transaction systems to the people “on the outside,” granting them visibility and access to internal business data and processes

3) Connect their people and actual business practices, so that they can do higher-level things such as negotiation, planning, design, problem solving and customer service

Age-old systems such as electronic data interchange, and contemporary systems enabled by such things as programmatic Web services, do a great job at the first. A broad variety of “portal” and “application server” products do a wonderful job at the second-giving customers and partners unprecedented access to formerly internal systems.

But the third issue-connecting people to people-is largely accomplished today either face-to-face or via phone, e-mail and fax. By using Groove, an organization can directly reduce the “cost of coordination,” minimizing distortion and delay by providing people with tools that are customized to the nature of the interaction–yet are spontaneous and easy enough to use that people gravitate toward them very naturally.

TR: Unlike Lotus Notes and Zaplet, Groove is a peer-to-peer rather than server-based system. Why go peer-to-peer in business?

Ozzie: I founded Groove [Networks] specifically because I came to the conclusion that the server-based model is fundamentally a non-starter in today’s business environment-that a fundamentally decentralized business environment must be supported by fundamentally decentralized computing and communications technology. The Internet gave us the decentralized communications base; Groove’s unique application platform provides the basis for fundamentally decentralized business applications.

In a truly decentralized business environment, one not dominated by “channel masters” or forces of mandated central control, there is a simple rule that I strongly believe in. No single company-including that of the technology vendor-should be required to control the data, the user identities, the security, the quality of service, the systems integration or the systems management of the systems upon which the businesses collaboratively function.

Don’t think of the simple case of a single big company with many little partners or customers. Think of the case of a number of like-sized companies working together, co-dependent, having to deal with each other in a multilateral fashion. Who runs the systems? And who has control? And who can manage access? And who can do systems integration?

All organizations need some level of control, systems management, systems integration, etc. And no third party-not the vendor, not an application service provider-should control the nature of the applications, the versions, the identities, the confidential information.

TR: E-mail is sometimes described as the ultimate killer app. Do you see advanced collaboration models ever replacing it?

Ozzie: No. We need a “global address space” that is friendly and familiar-the electronic version of our phone number or our postal address-as a universal place where we can receive invitations and introductions. E-mail gives us that, and I don’t believe anything will replace it for that use.

Oh, and we also need somewhere to get our spam.

TR: What do you see coming in collaboration via handheld devices?

Ozzie: You need a device with storage, memory, processing power, a local broadband wireless connection, a wide-area midband wireless connection and an “appropriate” human interface based upon many factors. At this stage, we as an industry are in what will be a fairly extended period of experimentation.

As a user, I like to try as many of these devices as possible in order to understand what might work for me, (e.g., Palm, Blackberry, 802.11b, the Vaio C1XS Picturebook) and what surely doesn’t (e.g., WAP). My predictions have too often differed significantly from the reality of my experiences in actual use.

TR: What do you expect 10 or 15 years from now?

Ozzie: Change generally happens much more slowly than we expect. The tens or hundreds of thousands of people who used instant messaging, e-mail, conferencing and online gaming on University of Illinois’ PLATO system back in the mid-70s could never have imagined that it would take 25 years for such things to become mainstream.

That said, it is my fundamental hope that we figure out how to package technology so that it much more naturally reflects our human needs, without going overboard. For example, we can jot things down quite nicely with a pen, thank you, so why can’t we just send “ink” reflecting our scribblings to one another, as opposed to forcing conversion to text? Why can’t I leave you ink or voice messages as easily as I can send you text, without having to use always-imperfect techniques to translate them to text?

We have not even begun to explore how technology can help us to augment our own feeble memories and to effectively work with each other across time and space.

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