Microsoft Gets Its Groove On

Microsoft announced last week that it's acquiring Groove Technologies, which makes a line of collaboration products. The news wasn't entirely unexpected because Microsoft invested in Groove fairly early. However, examining what the acquisition might mean for Microsoft's broader line of collaboration and communication products, particularly Exchange, is an interesting exercise.

First, let's distinguish between communications and collaboration. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they aren't the same. Communications is the exchange of information, as in an email message or an Instant Messaging (IM) conversation. Collaboration is working with others to produce a shared result. These definitions might seem elementary, but I want to clarify them because many people end up mixing the two. Here's a prime example: If you've ever worked on a document with other people by distributing modified versions of the document via email, you've shoehorned a collaborative task into a communications channel. This combination isn't necessarily the most efficient way to work, but if communication tools are all you have, that's probably what you're doing. Microsoft wants to address this deficiency by offering a unified suite of tools that work together to provide a sort of connective tissue that links people who want to collaborate and communicate.

In that light, does the Groove acquisition make sense? I think it does, both as a short-term and long-term strategy. The Groove product line is centered around the idea of workspaces. A workspace is roughly equivalent to a Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server team site; it can contain many different types of content (e.g., calendar data, messages, documents, tasks, custom data types handled by plug-ins). Whenever the Groove client is online, it uses a peer-to-peer synchronization protocol to synchronize itself with other copies of the same workspace. This technique is a smart approach because it doesn't require a centralized server to control replication. Ray Ozzie, Groove's chief architect, just happens to be the lead designer of IBM Lotus Notes, which is well known for its replication and offline architectures. Groove products improve on Lotus Notes' shortcomings while offering the flexibility to work efficiently when you're offline or using a low-bandwidth connection.

The Groove client has some other interesting capabilities. Every user has a Groove identity, which is essentially an RSA public key certificate. When you deploy Groove, you're actually deploying a public key infrastructure (PKI), without the centralized certificate authorities that are typically associated with PKI deployments. In addition, the client can synchronize with a SharePoint site and make a local copy of the site that you can use offline and update at intervals you specify when you're online. The Groove client also integrates with Microsoft Office applications to let you quickly add or retrieve documents in a workspace; I expect that integration to both broaden and deepen as Microsoft absorbs Groove's technology.

Microsoft is apparently planning to roll Groove technology into its product line. The ability to use a SharePoint site offline is valuable enough in itself to explain Microsoft's interest in the company. Adding the Groove client's peer-to-peer synchronization and distributed security features to Windows and Office system components will also bolster Microsoft's platform.

I'm interested to see how Microsoft will integrate Groove's capabilities into SharePoint. The company has announced that better public folder management and reporting tools are coming, both in Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) and in upcoming Web releases. Microsoft has provided relatively little guidance about how to migrate public folder data and applications to SharePoint, and one disadvantage of migrating right now is that you lose the ability to keep cached copies of public folder data on disconnected clients. The Groove technology provides a neat remedy to this problem, however, and I hope Microsoft will consider how to combine the technology with the company's short- and medium-term product plans to build a better architecture for public folder migration and deployment on SharePoint.

In the meantime, Groove is still offering free trial versions of its client product. I used Groove 2.x extensively for a book project, and although I had a little trouble convincing all my coauthors and reviewers to install the client, the ability to automatically synchronize my changes to all my peers, wherever I happened to be, was invaluable. You might also find the technology useful. If you're already using Groove products, let me know what you like and dislike about them.

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