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
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 (radio.userland.com).
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
(korganizer.kde.org) 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 (www.apple.com/ical). This
means you can easily share the desktop or group calendar
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
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
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.
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 (www.knowledgelabs.net),
an independent technology news bureau and writes for
Network Computing-The Asian Edition. For comments on
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