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The new spam buster?

Groove Networks CEO Ray Ozzie may have the answer to cutting down on unwanted e-mail that has so far eluded beleaguered IT managers.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
5 min read
Groove Networks CEO Ray Ozzie hates spam just as much as the next guy. But unlike that next guy, he's offering a potential way out for corporate-networking chiefs troubled by unsolicited e-mail.

When his company first introduced its collaboration software in October 2000, stopping spam wasn't its chief selling point. But on Monday, when Groove flips the switch on its first upgrade, the company will be able to make a plausible claim that it offers at least one answer to managing spam.

Version 2.0 of Groove, which integrates Microsoft's Outlook e-mail with new server tools, lets people on corporate networks collaborate with each other or with colleagues at other companies connected by the Internet. The service only allows access to people specifically invited to collaborate, letting Groove justifiably claim that its service is spam-proof.

CNET News.com recently chatted with Ozzie--the legendary developer responsible for inventing what became Lotus Notes--about the future of decentralized collaboration and life in the post-P2P era.

Q: One of my biggest bugaboos is spam. It just seems to be getting worse. You've been talking a lot about the prevalence of e-mail spam and viruses. What will happen if spam is left unchecked?
A: Anyone who uses e-mail knows that the signal-to-noise ratio is going down. At a personal level there's more spam, and at the corporate level there's more spam. You're now starting to get e-mail (headers) that are so ambiguous that you just might want to open them, like, "About last week's meeting."

It seems to me there's no natural barrier to an orders-of-magnitude increase in the noise.

If you use collaboration technology, you can collapse the amount of time (related to projects). And that translates to real savings.
At this point, most people would recognize that e-mail's become a mission-critical business tool. But as we rely on it more, it's also becoming harder to use effectively.

So what is there that's keeping it from going from 10 to 1,000 e-mails a day?
The only viable alternative is to consciously try over the next year or two to introduce environments for secure online work between people who you know.

Do you think people are really going to change the way they work?
No, I don't think e-mail's going to go away...I think people will want to gravitate to something designed for online communication unlike e-mail.

Let's switch gears. More than a year ago, you and I spoke about the challenge of bringing P2P solutions into the enterprise. When it comes to adopting peer-to-peer technologies, are you finding businesses still sitting on the sidelines?
The last time I met with our salespeople, we talked about this. The fact is, (corporations) almost never talk about peer-to-peer; the words haven't come up in six months. Clearly, they talk about decentralized architectures. Last year it was the association with Napster. But now customers are thinking about getting their work done and looking at us as to how we can solve their problems. If we need to get into the weeds with the IT people, then we get into discussions, like bandwidth or security.

Are the questions they're asking any different from the ones they asked you before 9/11?
Security is more relevant, even on the commercial side. It's always been relevant on the government side. Decentralization, where there's no single point of failure, is important to them.

In a post-Napster world, decentralization technology seems to be entering its second, less bubbly phase.

If you go on the assumption that businesses are operating in an increasingly decentralized environment, that would suggest they need more decentralized collaboration technologies. So how are companies measuring returns on investment from the use of collaboration technologies?
There are different metrics, and we will work on some more. The common thread we hear from everybody is that it's all about time. If you use collaboration technology, you can collapse the amount of time (relating to projects). And that translates to real savings.

From the point of view of technology innovation, post-bubble, are we in a go-slow stage right now, and if so, why?

With VCs, the logic is simple: If there's no exit, there's no entry. Regrettably, it's simple math.
I'm not sure. With VCs, the logic is simple: If there's no exit, there's no entry. Regrettably, it's simple math. With respect to Web services, that's one of the few cases where I'm incredibly optimistic, because everyone's lining up on the same base of technology. It's still a little bit out there, and customers aren't deploying it today; they're trying to figure where .Net and J2EE fit in. (.Net and J2EE, or Java 2 Enterprise Edition, are Microsoft's and Sun Microsystems' Web services initiatives, respectively.)

Is the Web services market in danger of falling hostage to fights between rival vendors creating proprietary lockdowns in their technology?
I don't think in the basic Web services tools that will happen. I do believe in the next level up, in the services deployed, that they'll all be proprietary. There will be power plays. But at the plumbing level, it doesn't feel that that layer is in danger of being controlled.

This is an interesting case where Microsoft is in the position of promoting open standards--where J2EE , IBM and BEA are making proprietary implementations of that environment. Most customers will probably end up with some of J2EE and some of .Net.

Speaking of Microsoft, the company invested $51 million in Groove last fall. Why did Microsoft invest?
There are a large number of technology and customer synergies. On the technology side, we make very good use of Microsoft's technology, and when they pitch .Net, they can point to Groove and say, "Isn't this a great example?" In terms of how computers get used, Microsoft's focused very heavily on server products, but a lot of their income comes from the client. This is a good way for them, in an indirect way, to reinforce the health of their client-side stuff. Historically, from a collaboration perspective, they look at Lotus Notes, and still, even with everything IBM has been doing, Notes is still out there with a lot of customers who are happy with it.

In what direction do you see collaboration technologies moving in the next 20 years?
This will be a self-serving statement--sorry--but I think it's moving more toward the individual. Notes did collaboration from an enterprise perspective. Even in all these years, we haven't focused as much on the...people working directly with other people. And that's where the future is. That's why everyone has this fascination with handheld devices. Nobody knows where it'll go, but it's a big petri dish.

The catalyzing event getting me off my butt (to start Groove) was watching my son play "Quake." I still have this feeling that if we could get businesspeople collaborating as effectively as people do in gaming environments, we'd have something.

Considering the tough times in the tech market, how is Groove doing financially?
We had a great year, relatively speaking--and we had a great (first quarter). We're continuing to move along.

Are you thinking about taking the company public?
Not in the short term. We need to create value. Most customers are still in the early stages--about to deploy or just deployed. I want to be able to look you and everyone in the eye and show lots of examples where people saved money before going out (with an IPO).