Get Into the Virtual Office Groove

By Dan Muse | Posted July 09, 2004
Doesn't anybody work in the same office anymore? Increasingly, workers operate either out of a remote office or are constantly on the go, making the concept of sharing of information informally in the workplace as passe as mailing a letter.

In a move to help workers share information easily, Groove Networks, an early proponent and provider of peer-to-peer networking services, will announce on Monday the release of Virtual Office 3.0. If that name doesn't sound familiar it's because, in addition to a slew of new features, the new version also sheds the Groove Workspace name in favor of the Virtual Office moniker.

The name change is a "reflection of the virtual office," Andrew Mahon, Groove's director of strategic marketing, said. "People are working at home, out of hotels — anywhere outside of the office. You can't assume people are working at desks with constant high bandwidth Internet access."

Mahon said Groove Networks had four goals in developing the new version of the communications and collaboration platform: improved performance, better useability, more solutions development options and more powerful folder synchronization tools.

Reducing the Resource Overhead
It may sound obvious, but for collaboration software like Virtual Office to be effective it has to be used by workers. "It's like the telephone. It becomes more valuable as more people use it." Virtual Office is similar to instant messaging in that you launch it and leave it open on your desktop. However, having a rich-client collaboration application always open on your desktop is resource-intensive, Mahon said. He added that 3.0 offers a three to five times performance improvement. The user interface in previous versions was based on customized scripting, but, he said, the new application is based on a standard Windows implementation.

To help improve useability, Virtual Office 3.0 adds a Launchbar feature, which is designed to allow users to view and access Groove Workspaces, contacts and activity from a single location. "It can be difficult to navigate when you have dozens of Workspaces open," Mahon said. You can also send alerts to notify you when particular events take place. "There's a lot of granularity for each Workspace. For example, you could configure the software to alert 'when Richard comes in this workspace.' We call it swarming. You go where the people are."

In previous versions, Mahon said, "after you downloaded the application, it had kind of that blank page feel." To give smaller businesses a starting point, Groove has added 10 templates that cover the most common applications based on how previous versions were used. "Our users have figured it out." Mahon said new users will reap the benefits and be able use the software "out of the box" and quickly set up virtual meetings or track engagements. They can also use the templates as a starting point and customize them for different tasks

For larger companies with some programming help on staff, Virtual Office 3.0 also supports forms for creating business-process applications that connect to back-end databases and CRM and ERP systems. "It addresses that last mile of integration and scalability." The new version offers an expanded Web services API for creating discrete applications that tap Groove virtual office capabilities such as synchronization and presence awareness. It also has a .NET API for developing tools that run within Groove Virtual Office, using VS.NET as the integrated development environment. Users can then use bots to query back-end systems, Mahon said.

In terms of interoperability with other IM platforms such as AOL's AIM, MSN and Yahoo Messenger, Mahon said Groove hasn't focused on it in this version. "It hasn't been a deal breaker or a deal maker," he said. However, Groove will continue to watch market demands.

Synching Gets Slicker
Finally, in Virtual Office 3.0 Groove reports that it has enhanced its Windows file folder synchronization capabilities. It crosses firewalls, features bandwidth optimization and provides 192-bit encryption. To make synchronization more efficient, Virtual Office recognizes only the proportion of a file that has changed. So, for example, if you make one change to large PowerPoint file, the folder synchronization capabilities send only the changes.

Customizable alerts can also notify individuals whenever a document has been added or modified. You can be alerted whenever a particular user opens file and then initiate a conversation. Mahon equated it to waiting for someone to walk by your desk in the physical office environment. Whether it's a virtual office or a physical one, it's all about "sharing files and having conversations," Mahon said.

The new folder synchronization capabilities are also designed to provide the benefits of a VPN without the complexity and expense, which is especially attactive to small businesses. Groove said users can work securely with colleagues, business partners and customers by securely sharing the contents of a single folder, which inherits Groove Virtual Office security. That is, all information exchanged over the Internet is encrypted automatically.

Virtual Office is available immediately, according to Groove Networks. The File Sharing Edition for costs $69, the Professional Edition is $179 and Project Edition is priced at $229.

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com's Small Business Channel and EarthWeb's Networking & Communications Channel.

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