The next peer-to-peer monster?

Peer-to-peer computing is stepping into a new world. A new software solution allows users to collaborate and work as a team right from a PC.

Ray Ozzie has his Groove back. While the man who created Lotus Notes has been out of the spotlight in recent years, he's been putting the finishing touches on Groove (www.groove .net), a product he is convinced will revolutionize the way computer users interact with each other.

In a nutshell, Groove creates an environment for Net-connected computer users located anywhere to collaborate as if they were sitting in the same office. To hear him tell it, Groove is poised to conquer and control the peer-to-peer landscape.

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"The potential for Groove and peer-computing applications is both broad and deep," Ozzie says. Groove, he adds, will "provide a small group of people with a context as rich as the Web in an environment as spontaneous as e-mail."

Unlike Lotus Notes, in which all information flows through a main server and is administered by IT personnel, Groove uses a many-to-many model of sharing information, similar to Napster. Information flows directly from one user to another, allowing for a more spontaneous work environment. Information can be controlled on the edges of the network, eliminating the need for any centralized client-server system. With Groove, a user can reach into a fellow user's screen and manipulate text and graphics, scribble real-time notes, share image files, even browse the Web together.

The idea came to Ozzie while watching his 15-year-old son play Quake over the Internet. "Quake utilizes every available cycle of computation on the PC in order to help team members coordinate visually with one another toward their shared goal," he says. "It struck me: Why can't PC technology also facilitate high-value interpersonal interactions in the business world? Is e-mail the best that we can do in business?"

Not if Ozzie has anything to do with it. Since rolling out its software last October, Groove Networks has signed up more than 50 business partners—including Perot Systems, Viant, and PTC—that will use Groove to develop solutions to the problem of improving business efficiency. "Our company licenses the software, and our partners deliver specific Groove solutions and professional solutions," Ozzie says.

For example, with built-in collaborative tools like a whiteboard and chat utility, one user at the home office can create a master document in Microsoft Word within the Groove virtual workspace. All members of the user's team can access and work on their designated sections of the document, as well as ask questions and seamlessly share other files with users in the space.

Groove's business model hinges on its ability to lure B2B clients, which pay hefty fees to use the application. "There's clearly more money there," says Andrew Mahon, the company's director of strategic marketing. "If you're a business, and your customers are other businesses, you can have a site that provides exclusive access to content. You can find a specific part, look into a tracking system, check inventory."

Ozzie says, "What we hear from customers is that they want to improve the quality of their relationships with customers and partners. Effective interaction—where there is a rich context, a rich means of communication—is critical to these goals."

Ozzie's ultimate goal is to make Groove as ubiquitous as e-mail, the telephone, and the fax machine. Given Ozzie's track record with Lotus Notes (60 million users and counting), it's probably wise not to bet against him.