Take collaboration one step further with groupware enhancers

This is no ordinary groupware. Besides multimedia functions, the applications bring
full client independence. You can't say that about conventional groupware.


The idea is that webmasters shouldn't be tied to one operating system or one umbrella
groupware package.


You should have the power to substitute modules in the collaboration environment and
distribute them across multiple machines without redoing your whole infrastructure.
Chances are a multimedia collaborative environment will only supplement, not replace, your
existing groupware, particularly e-mail and shared databases.


If you want to branch out into intranet collaboration, it's easiest to start with
client-server packages that work with Microsoft Windows NT on servers and Windows 95 on
PCs. The nice thing about an intranet is that you can put up an unlimited number of
servers and expand into Unix tools if and when you need them.


One popular entry point is PowWow 3.2 from Tribal Voice of Woodland Park, Colo. PowWow
lets up to seven users communicate via keyboard or voice, exchange files, view pages and
pictures, and cruise the World Wide Web as a group to discuss what's seen.


PowWow works with Windows 95 and NT. You can download a free copy at http://www.tribal.com.


Another free and increasingly popular choice is Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0, downloadable
at http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting. It
lets Win95 and NT users chat by keyboard or voice and work together on documents and
spreadsheets, taking turns controlling the mouse.


They can see each other if they have desktop digital cameras, and even see
non-NetMeeting participants whose videoconferencing equipment supports the international
H.323 standard for audioconferencing and videoconferencing.


Other good collaboration tools are CU-SeeMe from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua,
N.H.; see http://www.cuseeme.com. Also try Internet
Conference Professional from VocalTec Ltd. of Northvale, N.J.; see http://www.vocaltec.com.


It's practically free to get started, at least for testing purposes. But that doesn't
mean internal collaboration won't have hidden costs and management challenges.


First, can your network handle the bandwidth demands of multimedia?


Second, to build a local PowWow community, you must download the PowWow server and
maintain it locally. Ditto for CU-SeeMe. NetMeeting lets you link peer to peer without a
NetMeeting server.


Then there are the development, training and support expenses. If you're hoping to save
time and money on face-to-face meetings, investigate discussion forums, push technology
and intranet application development.


For discussions, you don't need a Web-style message board. Just follow the protocols
used on the Internet's UseNet newsgroups. Local groups can be established on any intranet
server that has the Network News Transport Protocol.


If you want to get fancier, Netscape Communications Corp.'s Collabra Server has
proprietary extensions, built around the Collabra Share product, for quickly establishing
controlled workgroup discussion areas. Users can make their own discussion subareas and
give them descriptive names beyond the usual UseNet name.name.name.


For push functions, you may be further along than you think. Lotus Domino, Microsoft
Exchange and Novell GroupWise support push features for distributing information
throughout an organization and notifying recipients. All you do is configure the clients
and the server properly.


Your current groupware's shared calendar or workflow application may include
intelligent routing and approval rules, too. If you're a Lotus Notes shop, consider Domino
Broadcast, which can publish Domino database information using push tools from BackWeb
Technologies Inc., Marimba Inc., PointCast Inc. or Wayfarer Communications Inc., with
feedback coming via interoffice messaging systems.


Push functions are designed as one-way broadcasts on most other Internet servers today
and can't compete with this Domino arrangement.


Intranet application development for collaboration is trickier. First, weigh
organizational issues, your network infrastructure and expectations for prototype
development. John Wiley & Sons has published a good book on this called Building the
Corporate Intranet. For a look at the book's 12-step decision tree for deploying
collaborative intranets, visit http://www.bsgnet.com/bk12steps.html.


There's also a good section on intranet collaborative environments at http://www.mainspring.com.


Check out some other low-cost solutions:


For more information, see UseNet's comp.groupware newsgroup discussions.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for GCN's
parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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