Microsoft Collaboration 101

From SharePoint to Groove, it's tricky to keep Redmond's collaboration platforms straight

I spent my second holiday season in a row at Pebble Beach. I won't gloat too much about that, except to say that when you're standing on the 7th at Pebble, the word Vista takes on a whole new meaning. Everything was great until I got back to the hotel, checked e-mail, and saw a reader missive complaining about my coverage of SharePoint and Groove.

It seems that while SharePoint is definitely Microsoft's lead collaboration platform, Redmond has been using the C-word to cover a lot of product ground these past few months: Exchange 2007, Office Live, the Groove client, and Live Communications Server. What ticked this reader off was the sudden mention of a Groove Server 2007, and the conspicuous absence of a Groove review on my part.

So first, I'll apologize for the lack of Groove coverage. I'm a loner and collaboration means talking to those annoying things — what are they called? — oh yeah, people! I'll do a full Groove review soon.

Meanwhile, just think of Groove as the personal side of collaboration. What instant messaging is to e-mail, Groove is to SharePoint. Groove is designed to allow users to instantly collaborate with each other (one-on-one) or in small groups. Zap an e-mail out to Bob or the other three guys in your design group informing them of your imminent Grooviness and you can set up an instant Groove site to share files.

SharePoint does many of the same things but has a much bigger focus on teams and established team sites. Groove sites are meant to pop up and down like prairie dogs ducking rancher bullets. SharePoint sites are meant to last longer than that — which is why I'd stick oft-used electronic forms there rather than on a Groove site. SharePoint is also much more flexible and visible.

SharePoint Version 3 is also capable of front-ending other applications. Microsoft has imbued SharePoint with the capability of sitting in front of your disparate existing business apps — customer/client databases, accounting applications, inventory records, and more — and then accessing their data in a single, fully customized SharePoint front end. Yeah, you'll need the pointy headed programming dudes to make it happen, but the tools that Redmond has put out there mean it can happen much, much faster than was previously possible.

Fleshing that out, SharePoint also includes the Windows Workflow Foundation technology. That means that regular humans like us, not just programmers, can visually design the workflow on these custom mini-applications.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Groove and SharePoint. Groove and Office Live's "meeting spaces," on the other hand, are more difficult to tell apart. Same basic set of tools, but you can't access an Office Live meeting space using a local install of Groove. Office Live seems accessible entirely and only via a Web browser save for its e-mail hosting features. Frankly, Microsoft ought to rethink that.

Exchange 2007 and Live Communications Server shouldn't overmuch concern those thinking about front-end, user-facing collaborative capability. I consider both of these back-end collaboration enablers (my buzzword contribution for today). They have user-facing features of their own, but as far as team collaboration goes, Microsoft is intending them mostly to feed the SharePoint maw.

And, yes, Live Communications Server has plenty of room left in that department. But Microsoft has come out and stated publicly that adding voice to all of its collaboration platforms is a key development goal for the next couple of years. So we can expect LCS to blossom in that regard with new features as well as a tighter integration with other Microsoft platforms. That'll be interesting to watch, but I wouldn't plan on getting rid of my phone service anytime soon.

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