VARBusiness: Groove up close (c2001)

We test out Groove, the new collaborative tool from the father of Notes

Tired of using a bunch of different tools to collaborate over the Internet? Then you need to get with the Groove.

Groove Networks is the latest software brainchild of Notes inventor Ray Ozzie. It combines the best of Notes with the peer-to-peer flexibility that Napster pioneered. Only Groove isn’t about sharing digital music files. It’s about getting serious collaborative work done. It’s both mundane and elegant at the same time. And it deserves serious consideration for enterprise network managers.

Over the years, I have developed my own collection of tools to get work done over the Internet. For example, I use My Yahoo for keeping track of my family calendar and contacts, MyDocsOnline as a shared storage space for my critical documents and AOL Instant Messenger (IM) to communicate quickly with friends and colleagues. It isn’t perfect — and it’s often messy — but this collection mostly does the trick. I am sure your own remote workers have a similar set of tools to do their jobs.

These are just my own personal preferences; there are plenty of other companies that are trying to provide pieces of this puzzle. The number of office-in-a-browser Web sites numbers in the dozens, including, MyFreeDesk and There’s also, which provides Web-based calendaring technology. And does file synchronization with document repositories such as Driveway and MyDocsOnline. Even old-economy Pitney Bowes has, a secure document delivery service

Stop! Between remembering the various login and password requirements for each site, downloading whatever piece of client software is required for these “100 percent browser” solutions, and dealing with their various idiosyncrasies, I’ve had enough. The trouble is, these solutions are far too complex and fussy for the average person. And as enterprises become more distributed, they are impossible to support. Groove changes all of this.

Yes, you do need to download its client, but it’s free. And once you get it set up — and it doesn’t take too long — you can start doing all of the tasks mentioned above (and more) with your workgroup. And it works behind firewalls and over dial-up connections. All you need is an Internet connection and a Windows PC.

I tested the latest beta build on both Windows 98 and Windows 2000 Pentiums with at least 96 MB of RAM — you’ll need at least this much memory and a 300 MHz or better Pentium if you want to see acceptable performance from Groove. And while the company claims it will work over dial up connections, I would recommend that your initial group of users make use of higher speed links, such as ISDN, DSL, or T-1 connections.

Under the Microscope

If you understand how Napster works with music files, Groove does something similar, but for all kinds of digital information. When you are connected to the Internet and have its client up and running, Groove broadcasts who you are and what you have to share with the outside world. You can set up different workspaces for different groups of people, similar to the way Notes works, only this time the workspaces contain common things like Word documents and Web pages. You can start discussion threads, doodle something with your mouse on a sketchpad or jot down some thoughts in an IM session. You can even play chess or tic-tac-toe, though you can move the chess pieces around with abandon.

Groove has some impressive features, and you don’t have to turn on secure or encrypted communications within your workgroup. It’s always on, and there’s nothing extra you have to do. That’s a big plus. You can invite others to participate in your little collective via e-mail, sending an attached invitation that can easily be incorporated into the Groove client.

There aren’t any new protocols to support, port numbers to enable, or any other network infrastructure. Best of all, you don’t have to run — and support — a specialized Groove server, since everything is peer-to-peer. This is a boon for overworked IS managers and other support personnel. The amazing thing about Groove is that it just works, and works well.

The biggest issue is that Groove is still pretty new stuff, and the number of people who are using it in any meaningful way is small. I get the feeling this is what the people who had the first telephones had to deal with. You want to be grooving with all of your frequent contacts — the days of sending e-mails back and forth, trying to collectively produce a presentation or document should be over by now, and Groove will help us get there. It works even better if an entire corporate workgroup can bring up Groove together.

Desired Features

There are a few missing pieces that I wish I had right now that would make me feel more groovy. One is the ability to import my calendar information from Yahoo or some other online or enterprise calendar service. Another is the ability to communicate with AOL’s IM users and download my buddy list into Groove. Ozzie says he is working on these and other enhancements. In addition, the use of e-mail to send out invites may not work properly if you have multiple e-mail clients on your PC and don’t have them configured correctly. You also will need some patience, as synchronizing all this information can take some time, depending on the raw size of the files and the quality of your network connection.

But these are minor points. I think Groove holds lots of promise and, indeed, just using it to communicate between my home and office machines was enough of a plus for me. Those of you who leave files on one computer or another, forgetting to upload them before you leave for work, are ripe for getting groovy. If you are already using Notes, Groove is worth looking at because of this: many of us have quit in frustration and bought a laptop to use at both home and work rather than try to deal with synchronizing their Notes desktop between different machines.

And if you can set up your own workgroups in Groove, you’ll get immediate benefits. This software is definitely worth a careful look and could be the most important example of peer-to-peer technology in the coming months, regardless of what happens legally to Napster.

Sidebar: Five Ways to Sell Groove to your clients

To best get with the Groove, you’ll want to identity the lowest-hanging fruit in an organization. Here are my suggestions:

— Look for project managers of distributed workgroups. Those workgroups that span several countries or time zones will be ripe for Groove.

— Focus on higher-level managers who work both out of their homes and at the office, and need to synchronize their files between both computers.

— Look for pockets of users within your organization who are frequent instant messaging users. They have the right culture to adopt Groove.

— Find project teams who need to frequently exchange files.

— Find people who travel frequently and want to stay connected with the home office. Groove can be used effectively to update these traveling users.

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