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Groupware: Going mobile

Groupware is getting ready to hit the road. The major groupware vendors, Lotus Development, Microsoft and Novell, as well as a number of lesser-known makers of collaborative software, are developing technologies that let road warriors access their e-mail and other office applications though all types of handheld wireless devices.
Written by James E. Gaskin, Contributor

Groupware is getting ready to hit the road. The major groupware vendors, Lotus Development, Microsoft and Novell, as well as a number of lesser-known makers of collaborative software, are developing technologies that let road warriors access their e-mail and other office applications though all types of handheld wireless devices.

However, in most cases today, it's the smaller players - not the groupware giants - offering the more advanced connections. And the third parties, not surprisingly, are pushing their own products over add-ons that link handheld devices to the major groupware packages.

"We're at the very early stage of wireless access to groupware," says David Ferris, research director at Ferris Research. But, he says, providing mobile access is becoming a big deal for buyers of collaborative applications - a development to which the major vendors can already attest.

Lotus Notes still sits atop the groupware heap, with more than 65 million users worldwide. In April, the company announced its Lotus Domino Everyplace Quickstart offering in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In July, North American users were targeted by the Mobile Notes Getting Started package for Web-enabled wireless devices; that package became available in early September. Both products offer the server and client components necessary to support wireless clients, including installation and configuration support by Lotus Professional Services, matched to their respective regions' wireless network standards and protocols.

Jim Pouliopoulos, senior marketing manager at Lotus, acknowledges the company feels it "will take some work to get these things up and working because they're new, but business managers want to push out small devices to their organizations." The new Mobile Notes package has generated "lots of traffic and interest from customers," he says.

Pouliopoulos tracks the evolution of wireless tools into a Notes environment in three stages. First, customers just want to generate simple notifications and alerts, such as standard pager or pager text messages, from within Notes. Second, they want wireless access into a Notes Domino server so they can extract the information they need. Finally, they want to synchronize a subset of data on a Domino server, downloading it to a device so they can work while disconnected.

"Customers begin with e-mail and calendars, then want to mobilize the activity," Pouliopoulos says. He believes customers will be accessing e-mail and shared calendars within six months, and he sees companies beginning to take applications and build them for mobile access from the start.

Yet sticking points keep cropping up in his conversation. One such point is Wireless Application Protocol. "With WAP, we have a big dilemma," he says.

WAP is seen as the dominant protocol for allowing Internet data to be displayed on mobile devices. But, Pouliopoulos notes, there is no standard WAP browser, nor is there a standard for writing mobile applications. Some programming tools, such as the promising Wireless Markup Language, work better with other protocols, such as the global system for mobile communications, which is popular in Europe.

Another problem for Lotus and other groupware vendors is that they rely on their business partners to help install wireless connections for existing Notes customers - third parties that usually work on their own products before looking to work with the leading groupware products.

FusionOne uses a unique store-and-forward transaction-based architecture to rapidly synchronize information across wired and wireless devices. "Today we're focused on connecting a huge variety of devices and types of data," says David Multer, fusionOne's co-founder and vice president of engineering. "Phones, Internet appliances, doesn't matter. We're trying to connect everything."

Still, fusionOne doesn't yet link directly to Notes or to Microsoft's Exchange Server groupware platform. Those connections are planned for next year. Currently, fusionOne provides its own type of groupware by coordinating all information for any one user and replicating that information across all other platforms.

"We tackle personal applications as well as personal devices," Multer says. "Groupware vendors don't like to extend themselves past their own databases. PalmPilots and phones don't connect well to those, so we provide the connectivity."

Palm's computers and other handheld devices normally synchronize to desktop systems via a cradle connected directly to the PC. Yet synchronizing a home PC with an office PC remains difficult, and adding wireless mobile devices turns all this into a complicated process for technology and implementation.

"Lotus, Microsoft and Novell will be compelled to offer support for the roaming and mobile work force," Multer says. "We all fall into that same pie, but the pie is so huge that backbone groupware vendors can only cover a certain area of support."

Multer's goal for fusionOne is easy to define, but difficult to implement: "Our vision is that what you do everyday is consistent across all connected devices," he says.

Luckily for Microsoft, fusionOne links to Exchange by synchronizing Microsoft's Outlook client data across devices registered with fusionOne's service. Connecting through an Outlook client to reach the Exchange Server takes two steps, but it works.

Better for Microsoft in some ways is the Intellisync product line from Pumatech. Using patented synchronization technology, Intellisync connects Palm OS and Windows CE systems to all major groupware products, as well as a wide variety of personal organizers and sales contact management applications.

In July, Pumatech announced a wireless component: its Mobile Application Platform. By adding plug-ins, Pumatech says it will link to all varieties of wireless devices through all existing protocols. An Intellisync Web portal will help the company's cause, but it has no release dates for the technology.

Microsoft has unveiled plans to provide wireless remote access to Microsoft Exchange-hosted corporate data via Internet-enabled mobile devices. Using a combination of its Internet Cellular Smart Access, Mobile Explorer and MSN Mobile Service, Microsoft hopes to encourage third parties to write software using Microsoft Internet Cellular Smart Access version 3.5. Mobile Explorer formats Web content for small screens, and MSN Mobile Services delivers content and services from The Microsoft Network to pagers, mobile phones and handheld devices.

Benefiting again from Pumatech's work, Microsoft's Outlook gained a foothold in the world of mobile work flow when Done.com announced a partnership with Pumatech. Done considers itself a "wireless application service provider" and, as an ASP, eliminates the need for new servers to support wireless users.

"We are filling spaces," says Mark Hill, chief executive of Done. "There are significant groups of people whose needs are not served by products in the marketplace." Customers want to do bigger jobs on smaller portable hardware, using wireless handheld devices in lieu of notebook computers. By keeping the programs on centralized servers rather than trying to overload small wireless clients, Done offers much more flexibility than the major groupware vendors.

Although Done connects to Notes and will offer direct synchronization tools to Notes in September, Hill says customers benefit from his company's approach.

"Our wireless work flow system can create a shared space for all people involved in a transaction, such as two or more companies and multiple lawyers, outside of Notes. Everyone can work together here, and companies don't have to worry about a hole in their internal groupware systems leaking information."

Gateway to GroupWise

Novell's GroupWise brings the gateway approach to wireless devices. The GroupWise WebAccess program began as a public beta in late March, partnered with AT&T's PocketNet service for wireless access. WebAccess relies on Internet standards, including the new crop of "microbrowsers." Web-enabled phones from every major vendor can send and receive information through the WebAccess gateway. "All GroupWise information is accessible over wireless links," says Leif Pedersen, director of product management at Novell. "Large enterprise customers with 20,000 or more GroupWise seats are testing this now."

Pedersen says GroupWise is the best choice for wireless customers because of its universal mailbox. "Palm.net uses a proprietary network, and customers don't want multiple e-mail accounts."

GroupWise WebAccess optimizes display-rendering based on the receiving device. "Palms offer more graphics and display options than phones," Pedersen says.

Pedersen says plainly that "wireless is immature now, but it does enough to give some value." That's the common thread when discussing wireless and groupware.

"In principle, wireless should be fairly simple," Ferris Research's Ferris says. "But life's not usually as simple as all that. We have some wireless now, mostly cell phones. But five years out, a wide spectrum of handheld devices will be wireless."

"We know this wireless stuff is taking off," Lotus' Pouliopoulos says, "and we will be there when they're ready."

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