The groupware Lotus eater

Lotus is back in the fray with new energy, and Microsoft's up for the fight. Where's the natural contender for the next big corporate prize?

It's as if the past 10 years had never happened. Over in Orlando, IBM has squared up against Microsoft's Sharepoint with the launch of Lotus Connections, while Redmond has released the Transporter Suite for Lotus Notes to suck people in the other direction. The 1990s Groupware Wars are back.

The battlefield has changed. Groupware's biggest technical bane — incompatible data formats and protocols — seems much less fearsome in the daylight. The bigger problem — that of what it does and why it matters — has also been solved: we are now a connected community at home and at work. The internet has been the perfect laboratory for collaborative and social software, and while we're still a long way from writing the last byte on how to make groups work, there are clear and attractive ways ahead.

Yet something's missing. If mastery of things internet, of communities and of data management are the three abilities needed to compete for the next generation of corporate software, then where on earth is Google? From its armoury of tools to its love affair with the zeitgeist, the company has the A to Z of requirements to compete at the highest level. Everything, that is, except a corporate strategy.

There are hints. Google Apps for Your Domain is a proof-of-concept package that adds some light customisation to a useful suite of free services — but it's not something you can take to the board when the Microsoft Exchange licence falls due.

What corporates need, and what Google does not provide, is a relationship that goes beyond trust into promise. Verifiable security, service levels, roadmaps and backup are required: not ideas naturally associated with a company whose primary groupware app, Gmail, is coming up for three years in beta.

To some extent, this is in keeping with Google's carefully contrived paradox, of being a deeply thoughtful company hiding behind a veil of confusion. As Larry Page told Time magazine last year, "We don't generally talk about our strategy... because it's strategic. I would rather have people think we're confused than let our competitors know what we're going to do. That's an easy trade-off."

It won't last for much longer. Either Google invents a whole new way to deal with corporates, or it gets into their comfort zone and starts speaking their language. If it does neither, it will cede an empire to its enemies — and that's not a strategy for anything but pain.

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