Using Internet-style groupware on the intranet: Page 3

Posted April 12, 2000

Jon Udell

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The intranet groupware opportunity

The standard Internet client -- specifically, the Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. browsers -- handles all three Internet groupware modes. It's not just a browser, it's also a mail client and a news (that is, NNTP, or Net News Transfer Protocol) client. Netscape names these three components Navigator, Messenger, and Collabra. Microsoft calls them Internet Explorer and Outlook Express (the latter referring jointly to a mailreader and newsreader). Although some people have argued that Outlook Express isn't as integral to Microsoft's product as the Messenger/Collabra pieces are to Netscape's, current events prove otherwise. Forced last month to withdraw the beta version of Outlook Express from its site, because of an injunction alleging unfair email filtering, Microsoft found that it could not separate Outlook Express from the browser, and had to withdraw the whole package.

"News is a great way for field and factory folks to communicate without having to go up and down the management protocol stack," says Subbarao. "Tough questions are regularly answered by people who know the answers best."

Hewlett Packard Co. technical consultant Kartik Subbarao

Although the standard Internet client is tri-modal, most intranets aren't. Relatively few people use the NNTP newsreader bundled with their browsers. Why not? From a Usenet perspective, there's no real reason to. Web sites such as DejaNews and SuperNews deliver browser-based access to the Usenet's knowledge base. Although the newsreader is a richer and more powerful conferencing tool than the browser, the chaotic flux of the Usenet affords little chance to use a newsreader to its fullest capability. Most people realize that the Microsoft and Netscape newsreaders can post plain-text messages to newsgroups, and attach MIME-encoded binary files. But few people know that they can also:

  • Compose and display HTML messages
  • Communicate securely over SSL
  • Authenticate using client certificates (digital IDs)
  • Do fulltext search of an indexed newsgroup (Netscape Collabra only)
  • Forward email directly to newsgroups

These features are either unwelcome or unsupported on the public Usenet. But if you create your own private Usenet -- that is, a set of permanent, non-replicating, non-expiring newsgroups that live only on your intranet and serve only your users -- you'll find that NNTP conferencing enhances intranet groupware even more than it enhances Internet groupware.

Kartik Subbarao, a technical consultant with Hewlett-Packard Co., says HP has been working this way since 1982. HP runs more than 100 intranet-wide newsgroups (see table 1). But NNTP conferencing is very decentralized; there are also many divisions and departments running their own more specialized newsgroups.

"News is a great way for field and factory folks to communicate without having to go up and down the management protocol stack," says Subbarao. "Tough questions are regularly answered by people who know the answers best."

A sampling of HP's company-wide newsgroups

These are a few of more than 100 company-wide newsgroups on the HP intranet. Like the public Usenet, HP's private newsgroups capture knowledge and experience in a variety of areas.
hp.jobsInternal job postings
hp.infosystemsThe web and related technologies.
hp.unixUNIX to create and delete newsgroups
hp.miscVarious and sundry things.

Intranet groupware in action

Subbarao's own division, HP Consulting, is geographically distributed with over 5,000 employees worldwide, most working from their homes or from field offices. The consulting sub-hierarchy of newsgroups is supported by two Netscape Collabra servers, one in the U.S. and one in Sweden.

HP's consultants are mobile, and often aren't in offices with fat Internet pipes. NNTP conferencing, which was built for marginal networks, works well in this environment. What about intermittently-connected users? "We point people to the offline capabilities of mail/newsreaders like the Netscape client," says Subbarao.

Consulting projects use newsgroups to share documents and conduct threaded discussions. Advantages include the following:

- People don't have to keep all documents on their own systems
- Posting a document to a newsgroup is much easier than posting to a Web site
- The project's message base is automatically indexed (by Collabra Server) and fulltext searchable (by the Netscape Collabra client)
- Shared project bulletin boards enable serendipitous interaction

The last point is subtle but crucial. In an email-only culture, the recipient of every message must be specified. But often you can't know who your message should reach. Nor is it practical to cc: everything to everyone. When project communication flows through shared newsgroup channels, in addition to private email channels, it creates a kind of "watercooler" effect. In the physical office, chance associations and overheard remarks have a powerful -- if intangible -- effect on productivity. The virtual office eliminates many of these interactions; newsgroups can help restore them.

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