Collaborative Software (or Groupware) is the term used to describe software applications that enable multiple users to collaborate on related tasks, on local or remote servers. This might sound confusing but in practice it just means that you can work on documents and tasks with several people at the same time, as long as you are connected to the network that stores the files. The main purpose of collaborative software is sharing knowledge and minimizing delays caused by time and space. As the business world gets faster and more complex almost day by day, more and more people need instant information about recent activities, and collaborative tools can become essential for an enterprise’s chance of success.
Collaborative software can be divided into three collaboration levels: communication, conferencing, and co-ordination. Communication is the interchange of information, for example via voice over IP, instant messaging (like Windows Live Messenger, or Microsoft Lync for business purposes), or good old email. Conferencing is working interactively towards a shared goal, like in a brainstorming session. Co-ordination refers to coordinating complex interdependent work towards a shared goal. Usually collaborative software supports all three levels.
The origins of groupware date back to 1951. Doug Engelbart envisioned people working together on complex problems augmented by interactive computers. In 1968 he demonstrated the first full working groupware environment at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. His presentation included a computer supported meeting, teleconferencing, shared files and author-id time stamps on every document and even of the code inside those documents, e-mails, digital libraries and online communities. If we jump back to 2011, we can see that all these are the basics features of today’s collaborative software. In fact, even the features of social networks like Facebook are not much different from collaborative software.
Of course, over time these initial ideas have evolved, and now thanks to cloud computing the next generation of collaborative software has just hit the commercial market. Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services instead of computing products. Resources, software, and information are shared to devices as a utility over the internet, similar to an electricity grid. This allows for the next generation of collaborative software to function. Where not too long ago collaborative software from companies like Microsoft (Sharepoint) or IBM (Lotus) were hosted by the company itself, we now see a lot of companies switching to providers of collaborative computing services in the cloud, outsourcing their whole software, and most of their server-sided hardware. On the one hand it allows companies to save on the expenditures for hardware and software maintenance but on the other hand it means that they lose control over company data.
The cloud trend was started by Google, who provided Google Apps and Google Docs next to their Gmail service, but it did not take off in the enterprise world until Salesforce.com started to offer an online customer relationship management service. Since then the market has expanded and there are a lot of start-ups and well established companies (among them of course Microsoft) trying to gain market share in this fast growing highly competitive market.
Around the cloud-services the main developments are the integration of social networks into collaborative software and vice versa. Groups, forums, social profile, instant messaging, video and voice chat are now common features in both social networks and collaborative software. Another important development is the porting of former desktop software to cloud-services. Microsoft for example recently launched Office 365, which is essentially Microsoft Office running in the web browser. Lastly, the access through all kinds of devices, mainly smartphones and desktops, enables users to access and modify data from anywhere in the world. Good examples of this are the cloud file storage Dropbox, and the note taking application Evernote.