The inundation factor and rising inefficiencies of Email are forcing users to look beyond it as their collaborative medium. The next step is genuine team collaboration, which has been out of reach to small businesses and the outposts of the corporate world.
Enter TeamRoom, a version of Lotus Notes served up through your local ISP. Judging from the product's interface, TeamRoom resembles a typical Notes client. You can sort messages by views, conduct threaded discussions and post material securely for common consumption.
TeamRoom is part of Lotus' ongoing strategy to make Notes more accessible to small business users, where traditionally the product has not had a strong base. Notes has always been regarded as a massive, monolithic package that required extensive inhouse development resources to customise it to your business needs, and to support and maintain the software. For large businesses, this makes sense because the hefty ongoing investment is justified by the productivity benefits in having a single communication system running throughout their operations. Small businesses do not have the requisite resources.
Notes' groupware supremacy began to be challenged last year by the advent of the intranet, which also promised a flexible collaboration environment, based on Email and web technology, but claimed to be cheaper than Notes.
This opened up the groupware market to all sizes of business. In response, Lotus started to open up its proprietary system to the web, espousing web standards and protocols, and Domino was born.
Opening up Notes is a long process. April saw the announcement of Lotus Go, a new product for the small business market. Last year, the firm embarked on the Domino Service Provider Application program, a family of applications to be rented from service providers. Formerly codenamed Domino.Collaboration, TeamRoom was touted by Lotus last October as part of this scheme.
Now in beta testing, TeamRoom will be licensed to ISPs who will then offer the service to small businesses and corporate clients at prices set locally. The product is reported to be scheduled for shipment in a month's time, although Lotus UK refused to confirm this.
TeamRoom lets users create virtual private communities over the Net, and establish threaded discussion groups. This means users can create and disband discussion groups as needed, and ISPs are expected to charge on that basis.
It's not just small businesses who could benefit from such a service.
Cross-departmental teams within a company could also have their own groups, or users could set up communities with partners and clients in other companies.
"TeamRoom is useful for anybody who doesn't necessarily work inside an office but wants to share information," explained Victor Aberdeen, Domino product manager at Lotus UK. He added that users will not need Notes because the service can be accessed from any web client or browser.
Netcom is the first ISP to sign up to the project. The company has set up 35 TeamRooms for clients since it started beta testing the software last month. Aberdeen confirmed that Lotus was in negotiations with BT and other major UK service providers, but none of these have yet gone public with their plans. Although companies such as BT already offer corporate intranet services, Aberdeen said these will not conflict with plans to sell Lotus products. "They will be offered as part of a wide portfolio of such services," he said.
What's important about TeamRoom is not the technology itself, however.
You can find this functionality in many corporations. The important thing is the accessibility. ISPs offering Notes to a wider population is a breakthrough.
Two years ago, AT&T offered a similar service over a proprietary network, but it failed to attract enough business to justify the hundreds of engineers on the project. AT&T also was building huge server farms for the service, a tangible example of the project's potential. Ebullient executives from both AT&T and Lotus boasted that billions in revenues would be generated from the service, called AT&T Network Notes.
When the plug was pulled last year, Lotus and AT&T found they had worshipped a false god - the proprietary network. It was the right idea on the wrong network. Few companies had been religious about the Internet when the project was started. But it didn't matter. The Internet doomed AT&T Network Notes from the start.
TeamRoom could bring inexpensive collaboration to the ordinary man and woman. If users don't like it, they terminate the service. There's no equipment or system investment to worry about. TeamRoom should be no different from outsourcing your telephone conferencing. It's easier to have your telecoms provider - the expert - set up a conference call than to invest in all the equipment and capability yourself. Phone conferencing and TeamRoom are just variations on outsourcing.
Still, bulletin boards and threaded discussion services groups have been available from on-line services for years. Businesses, for lack of understanding, tended not to bite. The logic was: "If my competitors don't use it, why should I bother?"
TeamRoom is not alone in bringing groupware to the small-business or corporate department manager. There's Farallon's Netopia Virtual Office, which gives the user an office and collaborative tools on the Web. Cisco's Micro Webserver is another product that promises to take many of us beyond the meagre browser existence. The $995 (#620) device, using a 100Mb Zip drive, can quickly be configured as a web server for sharing documents and information. It allows up to 10 concurrent sessions from any web browser.
The point is to make the web a compelling, tailored and focused business tool for everyone. And small business is a big chunk of everyone. Forrester Research estimates there will be 640,000 Internet-connected companies with between 20 and 99 employees by 2000. And that's only about 35% of the total number of businesses of that size. Moreover, small corporations can collaborate without relying on IT to build an expensive application or reject the project outright.
Much of TeamRoom's success will depend on the ability of the ISP to market it. Businesses have to recognise the benefits of collaboration, pieces of which have been readily available for more than a decade. What's different now? The Internet makes it cheap, low-risk and flexible.
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