Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, December 8, 1999

Innovative Groupware Services

New Web-based services, such as eGroups, TakeItOffline, and TimeDance, can help groups communicate more effectively.

In a previous column I mentioned that BYTE.com columnist Moshe Bar was looking for a way to help his extended family communicate online. I outlined the steps required to set up innd (the standard UNIX news server) for private conferencing, and Moshe went off to do the experiment. Meanwhile, in the networking newsgroup, we debated whether NNTP is "too hard" for most users, why that might or might not be so, and whether a purely Web-based conferencing solution would really be best for most users.

As it turns out, NNTP is working pretty well for Moshe's family. He reports that after some initial hesitation, his relatives are chatting comfortably in private newsgroups. I'm glad to hear that because, after all, a major premise of my book is that NNTP conferencing is a simple and effective mode of group communication.

Of course NNTP isn't the only answer. I've lately been exploring Web/email hybrids that support informal, ad-hoc group communication. They're examples of the kinds of simple, clever, and innovative groupware services that the Internet can now deliver.


One of biggest problems with NNTP is that you need an administrator. Not so with www.egroups.com. At this site, anyone can launch a mailing list that's backed by a rich web interface that you can use to:

The members of my own clan are all email users now, but most haven't experienced this kind of private groupware service, so I started an eGroup to find out how well it would work.

On balance, I'd say it's working well. Admittedly, there's been some bickering and squabbling:

"Should we let Linda into the group?"

"No way! She's the one who flushed my fish down the toilet in 1965!"

This was fun for a while, but after a few days I switched to digest delivery mode: one message per day, with headers and URLs that lead back to complete messages. I do want to stay in the loop, but it's really handy to be able to consolidate the message traffic in this way.

The benefits that emerge from our use of this system -- entertainment aside -- are mundane, but that's really the point. Some of us have rediscovered one another's birthdates. Kids' Christmas wishlists that would otherwise have been relayed in a series of point-to-point phone calls or emails are being shared centrally. None of this is earthshaking, but it's useful. Email alone can achieve the same results, but it does so awkwardly. A listserv (with a digest delivery option) is a major improvement. A listserv that's backed by a web-based archive is even better. Calendar services woven into the messaging fabric improve matters still further.

Internet mail, web conferencing, and web calendaring are components that we're seeing combined and recombined in endless variations. www.eGroups.com isn't the only way for families to stay in touch. Dominic Amann reports:

My family have been using MyFamily.com for about 6 months now. The family tree stuff is useful, as well as the birthday reminders.

It's a sure bet that family-oriented Internet groupware -- in various forms -- will be a huge success. What's the business model? In the case of www.eGroups.com, the options are:

Quite a reasonable approach, I think. And there's plenty of scope for value-add -- scheduling, fulltext search of the message base, etc.

Web groupware for businesses

I also think that there's a huge opportunity for business-grade versions of the eGroups idea. On a corporate intranet, group communication isn't just a pleasant diversion, it's a vital strategic weapon. The groupware strategies outlined in my book presume that businesses can set up and run their own groupware services but, in fact, many smaller businesses can't or don't want to. It seems inevitable that many of these businesses will want to adopt web-hosted groupware.

Clearly security is a paramount concern. Business communication is, by definition, confidential, and reluctance to store confidential material out-of-house is understandable and justified. Of course, many small businesses already use ISP-hosted mail servers, and almost every business exchanges far too many confidential documents using unencrypted Internet email. An SSL-protected Web (or NNTP!) groupware system that replaced the use of email for these kinds of exchanges would be a big step forward for many companies -- and is entirely feasible using currently-deployed technologies.


The title of this clever new service says it all. At the site, you fill out a brief form to start a topic. The message that comes back to you contains the URL for discussion of that topic. To invite others into the discussion, you forward them the message containing the URL.

How private is it? The docs frankly explain:

Your topic at Take It Offline is just as private as its web address -- no more, no less. This address is extremly hard to guess. It's a randomly generated series of alphanumeric characters

This URL-is-the-password solution is fine for many kinds of casual use. More rigorous security protocols are of course possible, e.g. for business use, but it is quite difficult to implement them while preserving the spontaneity of this mechanism, which is one of its strengths.

I find this especially interesting:

Take It Offline gives you the freedom to go off-topic. We hope it gives new energy to your mailing lists. You can start an interesting but potentially diverging topic on your list, knowing you can take it here when you see fit.

This is one of those tricky communication problems that have not yet been solved well, if at all -- especially in business settings. A problem with all the groupware strategies discussed in my book -- e.g., Web conferencing, NNTP conferencing -- is that the groups are relatively static. Even a eGroups.com group has a somewhat heavyweight feel to it. The TakeItOffline group is intentionally very lightweight, and this is a key thing that can enable group formation to occur in a more fluid way.

Like eGroups, TakeItOffline is -- from my perspective -- primarily an important experiment. We all think that groupware is a good thing, and that we should have it and use it. But nobody really knows what groupware is, or should be. And there's really only one way to find out: build some applications, get some groups to start using them, observe the results, and adjust the apps accordingly.


TimeDance is another interesting experiment. It's a Web-based scheduler. You create an invitation to some event (a party, a meeting), list the email addresses of the invitees (possibly imported from your desktop mailer), and let TimeDance keep track of who has RSVP'd, remind those who haven't, and provide other useful services. For example, if you specify a street address for the event's location, TimeDance may be able to provide maps and directions for your guests.

Is this a correct approach? It seems so to me, but there are subtleties here that, I think, tend to elude the typical Internet standards process of spec'ing out protocols and data structures. Should the RSVP protocol be the same for every invitee? Should the list of invitees be shown? Hidden? Selectively shown? There's really no way to figure all this out ahead of time; you just have to do the experiment. Web/email groupware services such as eGroups, TakeItOffline, and TimeDance are useful right from the first click. But they're also laboratories in which to do the experiment, and find out what groupware really wants to become.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly and Associates.

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