On March 10 of this year, Microsoft released a press statement that they had acquired Groove Networks. We know what Microsoft is, but do you know what Groove is? Groove centers around something they call the “virtual office.” So what’s that? In today’s interconnected world where information workers (IW’s) work together but not necessarily in the same physical location, various types of information are passed back and forth. You communicate with email, email alerts, and instant messages, all the while passing along documents, project plans, sketches from white-board sessions, etc. Passing this information back and forth, the the medium in which you do it, can be called a virtual office.
“OK, got it… soooooo… back to my question… what is Groove?” Groove is a client that all members of a team would install on their workstations. It then allows you to create workspaces which are then accessible from anyone who has been invited to have access and contribute to the workspace. Workspaces can be anything from shared calendars or file shares, to multiuser environments used to collaborate & bring data under one roof. The Groove client allows you to work with workspaces either online/offline and see the online status of all your team members… all without the complexity of firewalls and VPN connections. You can also create custom workspace types using the Groove SDK… these can be built using VS .NET and the .NET Framework.
One other nugget of info: Groove CEO, Ray Ozzie (who was named Microsoft CTO in the acquisition, is also the brain who started Lotus Domino and it’s version of shared workspaces).
In the MSFT PressPass, Microsoft stated that the immediate plans are to keep the current packaging of Groove where clients are sold stand-alone and merge it into the Office System. In fact, there is a single session at the PDC in Los Angeles this year that talks about creating Groove applications.
It’s no secret that SharePoint has a very promising future within the portals group of the Office System group. In fact, SharePoint is the fastest growing product in the history of Microsoft. SharePoint, at it’s very core, revolves around the concept of small team sites (WSS). Even SharePoint Portal Server is based off these team sites as every area & subarea is actually a special team site under the covers. Sure SharePoint has some nice hooks into Office 2003 applications, most notably Outlook, but also Word & Excel, but this integration is quite loose and limited. Most of the time you need to be connected in order for any of the think client experience… it’s not a very offline-friendly application… virtually everything in SharePoint is done using the web UI.
This is where I see the Groove acquisition making a profound impact… in fact, I see it as the “killer app” or “silver bullet” for SharePoint. Why? How similar are the concepts of Groove workspaces and SharePoint team sites? Sure, there are tons of differences… it’s much easier to pull a new web part into a team site to create a little data silo, wrapped up in some pretty views. What if Groove was able to consider a team site a workspace? What if, this application called SharePoint (WSS or SPS) that is almost viral in nature in many organizations… what if IW’s could take their team sites with them when they were off the corporate network? What if you needed to access something while in a meeting, on the plane, or at a customer site? Groove could be smart enough to know what’s changed both on your PC and in the workspace when you reconnect.
How big would that be? Offline SharePoint! “Uh, it’s not that big of a deal, web access to SharePoint is good enough.” I’ve heard that before… and every time I disagree. Granted, the order of their appearance isn’t the same as Groove & SharePoint, but consider Outlook and OWA. Can’t you do *just about* anything in OWA that you can do in Outlook? Sure! But if so, why is the client so much more popular? Because it’s a thick client and can do a better job of getting information to the user’s eyes faster than a web client.
How different is Groove from Outlook, and SharePoint from OWA? In my mind, not much. There are hurdles to overcome… the biggest bring resolution of conflicts when an offline & online user have updated a document, or a task, or any data element. It’s also a bit of a different model, where Outlook allows a single user to interact with their single mailbox (yes, there are exceptions) whereas SharePoint is designed to facilitate collaboration of many players and Groove would simply be a thick client version of SharePoint.
Sure, there are places where this integration doesn’t mesh well (I keep thinking of a couple hundred MB sized document library being kept in sync with 8 people on a team… what a nightmare for  network traffic and  for conflict resolution!). But those are more technical issues and not possible implementations for it. Technical solutions are devised from implementations… so I’ll leave that one for later.
I’ve only scratched the surface. I see many other areas of integration between the two applications. I’m somewhat surprised to see virtually no one talking about this subject (aside from the initial buzz the move caused… me being a part of that). I was hoping to see more future being discussed at PDC with respect to Groove, but it appears that we’ll have to wait a little longer. I surely don’t see Microsoft selling Groove as a stand-alone application… not with how integrated so many of their other products are becoming in the new Office 12. This one should be fun to watch… I know I will being involved with the portals/server side of the Office System.
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