Spreading the message

The days of simple e-mail appear to be over as vendors have begun touting fully fledged collaboration suites that not only handle mail, but also instant messaging, scheduling, video conferencing and workflow capabilities. Many of the region’s end users appear to be buying into these enhanced solutions as a way to boost productivity and improve information access.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  February 8, 2004

|~|Ashim-Pal-photo.jpg|~|Free collaboration software has inherent limitations, says Meta Group’s Ashim Pal.|~|Back in the 1990s, enterprise messaging amounted to little more than asynchronous e-mail functionality. Today, these applications have evolved into collaborative software suites that encompass integrated e-mail, instant messaging, voice and video conferencing capabilities; bulletin boards, project management, scheduling, calendaring and file sharing features, plus basic workflow and document management features. While the nomenclature for such software ranges from integrated collaborative environments (ICEs), to groupware, teamware and enterprise messaging applications, all such suites broadly refer to applications that allow business users to stay in touch and organise their working lives in a faster and more effective way. This automation, in turn, translates into streamlined business processes, greater productivity and, theoretically, improved services for customers and clients. “We are seeing more and more customers extending their basic e-mail platform and they are now looking at ways to enhance their core messaging with value added services,” says Mustafa Farhan, infrastructure technology specialist, Microsoft South Gulf. “The market approach is now all about taking e-mail and messaging to the next level by integrating it into a collaborative environment with document management and workflow capabilities,” he adds. To deliver a collaborative environment that delivers on its promises of easier communication and greater productivity, the main e-mail, groupware and collaboration suite vendors are investing millions in the development of features that not only tempt new users but also persuade existing ones to upgrade. The largest such launch occurred late last year, as Microsoft unveiled Office System. Comprising 11 products and four servers, the Redmond mantra revolved around greater collaboration, communication and workflow management. Old programmes such as Visio, FrontPage, Publisher and Project were upgraded and new ones added. Additional servers, such as Office Live Communications Server 2003 and Exchange Server 2003 were also included in the package, as were services such as Office Live Meeting. To ram its improvements home, Microsoft also released research carried out by Navigant Consulting. The study showed that information workers using Office Systems gained an average of two hours in productive time each week without working longer hours, while companies deploying the solution could realise a median net present value of US$4,000 per worker, thus paying for the solution in eight months. Other benefits uncovered in the paid for report included reduced error rates and travelling time. “Microsoft Office System presents a clear opportunity for organisations — both small and large — to increase employee productivity and the value of business information, as well as realise a higher return on investment,” says Jeff Raikes, group vice president of productivity & business services at Microsoft. Microsoft is not alone in upgrading its software and the sector’s other major players — IBM, Oracle and Sun — are also overhauling their suites on a regular basis. For instance, Oracle has recently added iMeeting, which provides instant messaging, shared web browsing, application sharing, web conferences and enterprise wide presence detection, to its Collaboration Suite offering. The vendor is also continuing to leveraging its huge database and enterprise application installations to win an increasing number of customers. “Though we started late [in the enterprise messaging market] we now have a strong product suite like Oracle Collaboration Suite [release 2,] which is a part of our information consolidation strategy,” says Tarek Shahwi, technology manager, Oracle Middle East. ||**|||~|sunman.jpg|~|Sun Microsystems’ Java Enterprise System is a full bundle, says Ahmad El Dandachi.|~|IBM also revamped its Lotus Notes/Domino groupware and recently launched an Arabised version of its Lotus Workplace platform. Elsewhere, Novell is quietly ramping up its groupware offerings in an attempt to challenge the big three. With investment backing from IBM and the recent acquisition of Suse and Ximian, Novell claims to be the only vendor with cross-platform groupware offerings. With an Arabised version of GroupWise 6.5 and Ximian Evolution 1.4, users receive the standard collaborative features, plus connectors for Microsoft Exchange. “In the region we’re seeing lot of demand for our groupware solutions [especially] after our Linux support,” says Hazem Bayado, technical director, Novell Middle East. While Novell may tout its Linux support as a differentiator, Sun Microsystems could still have the edge in terms of pricing. Sun recently unveiled Java Enterprise System (JES), which comes bundled with a raft of groupware and other enterprise applications for US$100 per employee per year, including support and training. “At just US$100 per employee per year the groupware is all included in the JES bundle. With full Arabic support and interoperability with Exchange across three platforms we believe we are competing in a different segment,” says Ahmad El Dandachi, software sales manager, Sun Microsystems MENA. With alternative offerings like OpenGroupware.org (OGO), Sun and Novell may not be the only ones competing in the open source groupware space. However, their army of sales and support teams should help them win out against more hobbyist suites. “Support and training is one thing that affects all Linux and open source projects. This is where commercial vendors have an edge as they provide accountability, 24/7 support, service and training,” says Bayado. While the market has matured from a single product choice of Lotus Notes in the early 1990’s, issues like inter-enterprise messaging, interoperability and security issues continue to hinder groupware as it looks to reach critical mass. On the instant messaging side in particular there is still a gridlock between protocols, a lack of support and seamless interoperability across groupware platforms. “Having common enterprise messaging protocols that are interoperable is critical, many of them are yet to be ratified or IP-based SIP compliant. Few vendors are still selling proprietary messaging products,” says Farhan. In terms of actual sales, it remains unclear how many of the Middle East’s enterprises are actually acquiring the ever more advanced collaboration and messaging applications being launched by the main vendors. However, some local enterprises have begun to buy into the vendors’ messages and have started rolling out and using their solutions. For example, Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB) is currently migrating to IBM’s Lotus Domino version 6.5. The solution will be deployed across 900 seats in 32 different office locations throughout the bank’s 18 branches. The upgraded system promises to streamline interdepartmental communications and accelerate internal decision-making processes. By leveraging DIB’s existing e-mail infrastructure, Domino’s tracking system will also allow DIB employees to follow up on their action items quickly and effectively. “We believe this move will bring us many benefits as we start to strengthen our work processes across different levels and follow up more easily on the various tasks at hand,” says Abdulla Al Hamli, executive vice president of business services at DIB. “Also, paperwork is greatly reduced in our day-to-day work and this saves money, not to mention the fact that the software also simplifies our helpdesk processes. Lotus Domino is all about making collaboration easier and that is exactly what we need to put us on the edge of banking services in this market,” he explains. ||**|||~||~||~|Elsewhere, Bahrain Defence Force Hospital has switched from Microsoft to Oracle in order to gain closer integration between its new collaboration platform and Medical Information Systems (MIS) from Oracle. “Our aim was to move towards a paperless hospital where all the medical images, video, information and communications are all accessed from one single application interface, which we saw in Oracle’s Collaboration suite,” says Dr. Mukhtar Al Hashmi, head of IT, Bahrain Defence Force Hospital. The Oracle solution currently provides 700 users in the hospital with access to enterprise messaging services. It uses a combination of push and pull technology to retrieve and deliver information and messages to patients, doctors, administrative staff and medical suppliers. For instance, it alerts pharmacy staff automatically via e-mail or SMS when medical supplies are short, or trigger alerts to doctors during emergencies. By March 2004, the hospital expects to scale up the system to serve more than 1000 users. “We are now at a stage where we can access our messages from any communication system, even remotely, using a single logon to our enterprise information portal which provides us with a unified corporate messaging interface,” explains Dr. Al Hashmi. “We believe investing in a good messaging system or collaborative suite has a huge potential. Our next plan is to integrate the various messaging systems of all government departments into one single seamless environment,” he adds. While large finance houses such as DIB and government institutions such as Bahrain Defence Force Hospital have both the resources and budgets to invest in and leverage the capabilities found with Microsoft, Oracle and IBM’s offerings, the region’s small-to-medium sized business (SMB) community is often found wanting due to their limited IT budgets. One option for such users is to take advantage of the free products available on the market, such as those offered by MSN, AOL and Yahoo. While these services were rudimentary and consumer orientated in the past, they have become more acceptable in the business environment as the vendors involved have added enterprise type features to try and tap into the growing collaboration and instant messaging markets. However, according to Ashim Pal, vice president for content and collaboration at Meta Group, this may not be a wise decision due to the inherent limitations of such free software. “Consumer messaging companies do not offer specific features for messaging, collaboration or calendaring and other such advanced features that enterprises look for,” he says. Instead of taking the free route, SMBs may now look to cut down versions of the enterprise products being touted by the large software vendors or cheaper products. For instance, IBM recently unveiled Lotus Sametime, which offers high-security encryption, calendar integration, conferencing support and message logging for records purposes, and has reportedly signed up eight million corporate users to date. Elsewhere, Novell offers an Arabised lightweight version of its groupware called Novell Internet Messaging Service (NIMS). Another option for the region’s SMB community is to rent their collaboration software rather than buy it outright. Such a solution has been made available to residents of Dubai Internet City (DIC) as the vendor recently tied up with Microsoft to offer a Hosted Messaging and Collaboration (HMC) solution. The HMC offering runs on Microsoft’s messaging platform and includes Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. It provides messaging and collaboration features, including full e-mail capabilities, real time access to e-mail through mobile devices, shared contact lists and collaborative to-do lists, and is aimed squarely at the SMB sector. “In the UAE, there are a large number of SMBs that are getting on the e-economy bandwagon. With this solution, we can ensure that these organisations get the value and benefits of information and communications technologies without losing focus on their core business activities,” says Dr. Omar Bin Sulaiman, chief executive officer of DIC. With even the smallest companies now capable of using collaboration software, the worldwide market is set to mature and gradually and such solutions will become even more of a commodity. As such, vendors will soon have to look to the future once more to develop the killer collaboration application that will persuade users to upgrade or enhance their services. As Bayado says: “Collaboration is slowing becoming a commodity now as all vendors offer similar features, so customers should now focus on price, service, training, support, while vendors should focus on channels, education and penetration.” ||**||

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