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Issue of July 2003 
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Focus: Groupware

The Power of Groups

Groupware not just extends the functionality of desktops but also empowers users to share information resources. by Dr Seamus Phan

Mention the word Groupware and two words spring to mind--complex and expensive. However, groupware can cost anything from zero to tens of millions, and range from install-and-run to guru projects.

Eden Liew, deputy principal of Republic Polytechnic, one of the newest tertiary institutions in Singapore, sums up why groupware is a killer application. "We were using S$3,000 (US$1,697) laptops as typewriters. With Microsoft's collaboration and communication tools linking all our students and faculties, we can use these laptops to do so much more."

And Republic Polytechnic is not alone in the adoption of groupware. It is joined by other educational institutions such as the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), as well as international chartered quantity surveying firm Davis Langdon & Seah, and steel manufacturer NatSteel.

The spectrum of groupware

Groupware is not a product that provides a single function. It is primarily divided into two dimensions--time and space. That means groupware can be real-time (or synchronous) or different times (asynchronous), as well as groups of people working at the same place (co-located) or in different places (distance, even in different countries).

Applications within the groupware category include asynchronous applications (or modules) such as mail, newsgroups, workflow, hypertext, group calendars, and collaborative authoring. Groupware also includes synchronous or real-time applications such as shared whiteboards, videoconferencing, chat, decision support systems, and even multi-player gaming environments (which are often used in management simulations and training).

Even blog software (or weblogs) is classified under groupware, since it allows for collaborative authoring and even real-time publishing. One such example would be Radio UserLand (

Looking skyward to the open

As with many software applications these days, even groupware can be free if you go the way of open source. If you still imagine open source applications to be command-line-centric or "geekware," you are in for a surprise.

For example, KDE's KOrganizer ( can look very much like your Windows XP Desktop. It can be installed on any Unix or Unix-like operating system that has X (window manager) installed, including Linux, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, Solaris and so on. The latest KOrganizer 3.1.x features group scheduling, to-do list, alarms, appointments, and Web exporting.

It uses the .ICS format, which is the generally accepted calendar scheduling format that even Apple's iCal uses ( This means you can easily share the desktop or group calendar with
others, or migrate the calendar to other applications that work with the .ICS format.

Most of the open source or free groupware applications would require your Unix or Unix-like OS to be fully installed with all major scripting languages, including the likes of PHP4, as well as a decent database engine such as mySQL. Many of the open source programs or free software can also work with other databases, including industrial strength commercial databases such as Oracle and Progress.

There are at least 40 variants of groupware in various guises in the open source or free environment, as opposed to perhaps 10 to 20 decent commercially available products of the same form and function.

Crossing the Web

One of the easiest groupware to install, and least daunting to a first-time open source adopter, would be Web Crossing. If your server is a Windows or Mac OS X computer, you simply allow sharing on your computer, and launch the install application. Once installed, you can then designate the port to be used for this Web environment. After tweaking a few parameters (including user accounts, projects and others), you'll be set for action.

The other open source applications are no less different. For example, PHProjekt offers a simple Web-based interface that is clear to most users who are familiar with multi-paned frame-based Web designs, as well as simple Web navigation. The left-hand side shows the functionality of the groupware, including the summary (which shows the most important information in a nutshell, and is the first screen to greet an authorized user). It also has the calendar, contacts, chat, forum, files (files you can upload and download for collaborative projects), projects, timecard (one of the few such applications to offer time stamping for employees to "clock" in and out), notes, helpdesk, Webmail, and to-do.

Phpgroupware is even more customizable than PHProjekt, with multilingual support (such as Chinese, icon or text navigation, design templates, and extensive preference settings). It also offers similar functionality as PHProjekt, but extends that to allow smaller manufacturing or inventory-based businesses to manage inventory.

The inventory function allows you to key in all your raw materials, finished goods and intermediary items (including expensed items such as office stationery), and manage items to ensure that you do not run out of items during business operations. This is a unique groupware in that it offers such levels of serious functionality (not just trivial chat and conferencing), without a price tag other than time and effort to set up the product.

Phpgroupware also offers a timecard facility, which is basically an "in/out" board that shows who is in the office, and who is out. This is very useful for mid- to larger-sized operations with many employees constantly on the run, allowing anyone (especially the receptionist) to track their movements to better relay phone and other messages.

Moving scripts faster

One of the limitations of any groupware is performance. Since PHProjekt and phpgroupware are both PHP4-based (or script-based), its speed of execution is not the same as a compiled and optimized application.

Nonetheless, as long as you have a powerful hardware server housing this application and the associative database, plus a good image and data caching server (either in the same hardware or in a separate server), you can achieve very decent performance with these solutions.

Also bear in mind that commercial applications are not necessarily very fast either. Some applications may carry a high degree of functionality that are not often used in specific organizations, and the latency can come from the large code base. Conversely, if you are an expert PHP or other scripting language user, you can tweak the open source solutions to reduce the data calls to just the level of functionality you need or want. This will improve the speed, and is something that is impossible to do with commercial compiled applications.

Commercially speaking

Microsoft, one of the key commercial groupware vendors, uses the combination of its Exchange Server and Sharepoint Portal Server to provide a comprehensive platform for group collaboration. The advantages of using commercial solutions from industry stalwarts such as Microsoft and IBM Lotus are many, including an always available customer and technical support team, and the comfort factor when procuring these solutions.

Many IT managers refrain from choosing open source solutions mainly because they cannot find a local technical support team or even a person, and the responsibilities they have to bear should they implement the open source solution on their own without management buy-in. But even if management is convinced, they may not stand behind the decision of the IT manager should there be problems that cannot be solved.

Conversely, choosing commercial solutions such as Notes and Exchange means that you may have a legal contract with the commercial vendor (or you can purchase one under a service relationship), and can request support from the vendor-something you cannot do with open source solutions.

Specifically, Microsoft's Sharepoint Portal Server offers an extremely easy platform for organizations to erect intranets (or extranets) with full publishing, subscribing and collaboration capability, without the steep learning curve from some esoteric solutions. Because it is Windows-based, it is easy to install, implement and maintain. Most of the open source portal solutions for collaboration can still be daunting to implement and maintain.

Do you need it?

Even in small firms, such as those with consulting or field projects, or the likes of research facilities, the need for group collaboration is very real. And in larger enterprises that span the globe with offices all over the world, groupware can be the most affordable platform yet for real-time collaboration without expensive air tickets and accommodation, or the need for employees to converge at a single location.

Seamus Phan is research director at KnowledgeLabs News Center (, an independent technology news bureau and writes for Network Computing-The Asian Edition. For comments on this article write to

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