Lotus Notes creator expands vision of collaborating over networks

Monday, March 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEVERLY, Mass. (AP) _ Long before the Internet became a household word, Ray Ozzie envisioned a networked world where people collaborated with ease regardless of the time or their location.

For that, he created Lotus Notes, which enabled employees within companies to form teams and share notes, documents and e-mail. Since 1989, Notes has sold more than 75 million copies.

Now, Ozzie is carrying his vision a step further. Within a few weeks, he'll release Groove, which promises to improve how people work together _ even if they work for different companies.

And if it catches on the way the Notes did, Groove could profoundly change how employees, friends and families interact.

Imagine individuals in three different time zones all working on the same sketchpad or whiteboard _ tracking changes and new diagrams together. Or viewing the same video presentation. Or editing text documents simultaneously.

All the while, they are communicating via text chat or voice _ without having to pick up a telephone. With Groove, they can also follow Web links together.

``Groove is intended to be a very flexible environment that brings together the right people with the right information and the right tools for that information at the right times,'' Ozzie said. ``I've got great hopes for it.''

Other companies, too, are looking to accomplish what Groove claims to have done _ and many analysts believe Microsoft Corp. will want such capabilities in its .NET strategy for moving collaborative computing to the Internet.

``It is competitive, but Groove is the first one out of the gates in a serious way,'' said Brock Reeve, an analyst with Viant Corp. in Boston.

Ford Calhoun, chief information officer at drug company GlaxoSmithKline, gets new product pitches constantly and often ignores them. For him, Groove was different.

``The reason one is willing to look at this with full intensity early in its life cycle is because of the reputation of Ray Ozzie,'' Calhoun said. ``The guy, with Notes, totally changed the way many people are able to collaborate and do work.''

Groove essentially a software platform that companies and individuals can build upon. It's not designed to replace existing software applications but rather to let people use those applications in new ways.

The software uses a peer-to-peer approach that largely bypasses the performance constraints of computing that revolves around centralized servers.

Groove is somewhat like a Napster for businesses, except Ozzie started work on it years before the online music-swapping service emerged.

As a computer science student at the University of Illinois during the 1970s, Ozzie was exposed to PLATO, an online system linking universities through bulletin boards. Upon graduating, he discovered that the business world was largely devoid of such tools and set out to change that.

``My passion has been in using technology to, in some way, shape or form, augment human interaction,'' said Ozzie, low-key and casually dressed in a sweater and corduroys this day. ``Lotus Notes was all about bringing people together.''

As he worked on Notes, Ozzie began to notice changes in ways companies interacted.

Instead of working on everything in-house, companies began partnering with outside firms to divide tasks. More and more, employees needed to go outside their organizations for knowledge or to complete projects.

But Notes wasn't really designed to cross corporate boundaries well, given security firewalls and other hurdles, Ozzie said.

And for some, Lotus Notes ended up being no more than a glorified e-mail system that required heavy management.

Groove intends to address Notes' shortcomings, Ozzie said, by ``bringing the spontaneity of e-mail, phone and fax to individuals who need to work together regardless of whether they're in-house or in another company.''

With Groove's a peer-to-peer approach, if Bill needs a file from Mary, Bill grabs it directly off Mary's computer. If Bob makes a change, Groove automatically updates Bill's and Mary's copies.

This avoids the hassles of setting up special folders and accounts on centralized company file-servers. The approach also reduces bottlenecks and the need for massive computing power.

At Groove's offices, the difference is on display.

While businesses like America Online and Yahoo! have rooms full of computers to run chat rooms and store Web pages, Groove's command center has just a few workstations that serve as traffic cops.

Most of the brunt work is handled by individual computers running Groove.

The company's offices are low-key. Its more than 200 employees occupy part of a former shoe factory outside Boston.

No snazzy giant purple sofas in the reception area like you might find at Yahoo _ though the software is a vibrant lime green.

Ozzie started Groove Networks Inc. in 1997 using money he made at Lotus, which IBM bought two years earlier for $3.5 billion. Groove operated largely in secret until October, when a preview version was released.

Ozzie, 45, said he got most of his ideas from ``watching people work and watching people interact.'' He observed how people used Notes and computers, including what succeeded and what failed.

For Ozzie, Groove might be an easier sell than Notes.

``When we first started selling Notes, we were trying to sell the benefits of many people knowing what you're working on and you knowing what they're working on,'' he said. ``Most people (then) didn't have computers on their desks.''

Now that a computer is standard issue in the business world, people want to share certain data with select groups.

GlaxoSmithKline is interested in Groove to help its drug researchers look at data and evaluate molecular compounds together. Banks are looking to help customers develop financial plans.

The U.S. Defense Department is also evaluating Groove. The former national security adviser, John Poindexter, is working with the Pentagon on ways to improve collaboration. That could improve, for example, interagency cooperation on Iraq's weapons capabilities or help various agencies track international drug trafficking.

Although Groove will be initially marketed to businesses, Ozzie expects families and friends to eventually use it to share photos and coordinate get-togethers.

Esther Dyson, a technology analyst who writes the monthly newsletter ``Release 1.0,'' said integrating all of these functions is what makes Groove valuable.

``It's always possible to do any single thing,'' she said. ``What's difficult is to do 12 different things simultaneously. ... You can say anything Groove does is not magic, but doing it in concert is magic.''