BOSTON--March 7--Just like most of corporate America, the groupware industry is bullish on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web, as was more than evident at the recent Groupware '95 Conference. Some 50 vendors, both large and small, gathered at the Hynes Convention Center to display their most up-to-date wares, some of which allow corporations to employ existing collaborative technologies to both access and create Web information resources.
Though several smaller startup companies were on the exhibit floor the Tuesday I dropped in on the show, it was Lotus Development Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM that dominated the exhibit, with Lotus the clear leader in the groupware field. Touting its Lotus Notes program as "the groupware standard," Lotus also seems to understand--better than any company at the conference--the impact that the World Wide Web will have on the world of corporate collaborative technology.
At several points throughout the day, Lotus personnel demonstrated two new applications in the InterNotes product line developed by the corporation's Iris subsidiary to meld specifically with the Internet and the World Wide Web. The first product, called InterNotes News, allows corporate clients presently using Lotus Notes to organize, search and manipulate the tons of information to be found on the Internet's numerous Usenet News groups. The second program, known as InterNotes Web Publisher, automatically translates documents created in the Notes environment into Hypertext Mark-Up Language (HTML), the format code used to produce Web documents. The application also helps Notes clients maintain a corporate Web site, which is being viewed increasingly by many companies as an economical way to disseminate information to both their clients and the public.
Digital, on the other hand, seems more committed to providing hardware and firewall security programs for corporations interested in developing and maintaining commercial Web sites. Digital was one of the first companies to establish a corporate presence on the Web, and their main Web emphasis now seems to be on helping other corporations do the same through their AlphaServer Systems. The company also provides both Mosaic and Netscape browsers, as well as the Netsite Server software, on many of its shipped servers. Yet unlike Lotus, Digital seems to have no software technologies that specifically lend themselves to collaborative construction of Web documents and services, though they do provide dedicated corporate frameware applications, such as LinkWorks.
IBM apparently is taking a tack similar to Digital's, concentrating mainly on hardware servers for workgroups and yielding much of the groupware application field to leader Lotus. Last year, IBM announced that it was shipping copies of Lotus Notes 3.0 with its new Advanced Server for Workgroups. And just like Digital, IBM has developed applications with dedicated groupware capabilities, such as its WorkGroup and Person to Person applications. Still, they presently have no available software dedicated to the collaborative composition of Web documents and resources.
While these three larger companies dominated the exhibit floor with their multimedia presence, they were far from being the only groupware game in town. One of the leading groupware vendors in Europe--the TeamWARE division of Finland's ICL, Inc.--was there hawking its TeamOFFICE product line, which provides a host of collaborative technologies for the corporate suite, including mail, conferencing, and workflow applications. The company opened its American subsidiary only last year, but four months later signed a joint agreement with Novell to develop and market groupware and networking systems. Additionally, there were present on the exhibit floor a host of Lotus Business Partners, those companies marketing specific groupware applications for the Notes environment. One of the more interesting of these was the Reuter Business Alert program developed by the British news service. Business Alert allows the corporate client using Notes to tap into a wealth of database information, including stock quotes and business news, provided by Reuter and other sources.
The bottom line at Groupware '95 was that the Internet and the World Wide Web are hot in the business community, both as a source of up-to-date information that can help employees better do their jobs and as a means of distributing information to clients and the general public. But for all the hardware and hype about the Web and its commercial potential, I only saw one vendor with a direct active link to the Web, and that was an impromptu link set up by a Digital salesman on his personal laptop. There may have been others, but if there were, they weren't very evident.
One of the more commercially viable potentials of the Web, according to Bock, is its ability to impart continually changing product information to large and dispersed client bases. While most commercial Web sites presently contain what is basically public relations information, Bock said a number of technology companies are beginning to move toward disseminating more valuable information commodities, such as software patches and hardware maintenance specifications. He cited as an example Sun Microsystems Inc., which opened such a Web site in 1994 and saw an immediate 50 percent drop in the number of telephone calls to its technical support line.
Bock also stated that one of the more dynamic situations to look for on the Web in the coming months is the move to relatively low-cost commercial browsers with a host of new-fangled features. He quoted a recent New York Times article stating that Netscape has garnered 70 percent of the browser market within four months by basically giving away their product for free over the Internet. He also noted that Microsoft's much-anticipated Windows '95 operating system plans to incorporate a commercial browser and that several online services, such as America Online and Prodigy, are providing customers with their own Web browser.
"There's going to be just a lot of activity in the browser market, and everybody is into the `razor blade' theory of marketing, assuming that if they give away the razor, they will make the money on the blades," said Bock. "But then we have to ask the question, `Well, what are the blades anyway?' and `What is it they're giving away?' I would submit to you that our Web browsers are going to be become, if you will, consumable pieces of software--try one for a month at low value and if something else comes along, you don't have a great deal of loyalty to the browser because the real meat is in the server and in the wiring."
Bock outlined an array of emerging technologies and business issues relevant to the Web, such as the need for better indexing systems to replace the traditional editorial decision roles of newspapers and magazines in sifting through large amounts of information and giving it a social context. One of the more promising technologies in this area is what Bock called "Profile-Based Information Searches," where a user enters in a large amount of profile information, such as business or research interests, and the profile program searches databases looking for information that fits this particular profile.
Bock also said that our knowledge of how to use the Web medium to its fullest potential has only just begun and compared the situation to the early days of television production. Our present understanding, Bock said, is analogous to the crude production quality of the early "Howdy Doody" children's show--with its single camera angle and limited production tools--compared to the later "Sesame Street," which is a much more sophisticated show in terms of production. "As we learn more," he said, "we will learn there is a different degree of interactivity."
To take advantage of this interactivity, there is a tremendous need, according to Bock, for quality commercial servers that can help corporations establish secure commercial Web sites, especially in light of security concerns raised by the highly publicized arrest last month of the world's most wanted hacker, Kevin Mitnick.
"There are probably five or six companies on the market today who are selling commercial servers.... And there the issue is whether the people have taken the CERN code, the original Web server code, and reimplemented it from scratch or whether they simply bought the rights to it and have sort of fixed it up," said Bock. "My technical friends in the software community tell me that the CERN servers have a number of well-known and well-understood security holes, so that when you poke it the right exact way, they will do some strange and wonderful things, like let you into the system.
"Obviously this is not real good for commercial environments," Bock continued. "So I think that as we start to do electronic commerce in a big way and if these 3,000 companies are actually on servers and more and more companies are wanting to do business on the Internet, we're going to need commercial quality servers. This is obviously a good market for a software or hardware company."
Bock cautioned his audience, however, not to become overly paranoid about security break-ins and said that extreme concerns over security could lead to destruction of the Internet's traditionally free flow of information.
"I often worry," Bock continued, "that...some of the discussions about security may lead us to an eighth-century English countryside, where all of us are perfectly secure behind our firewalls if we have the drawbridge to our castle moats up, but we only put the drawbridges down to venture out into the fields under very special circumstances. And that would very much defeat what we're trying to accomplish on the Internet."
Newbold, who manages development of Lotus' InterNotes application, showed the audience how the company prevents hackers from gaining access to its corporate LAN by using encrypted replication of corporate information from its Notes LAN to its Web server ( see diagram for example of server setup). According to Newbold, "strong encryption is needed to make collaboration on the Internet work." Lotus has had problems in the past with hackers logging onto its Web server and executing "Web worms and port sweepers" in an attempt to gain access to its LAN, he said. To counteract such attempted intrusions, system operators merely monitor the hacker's activities to learn their latest techniques. Then when the hacker leaves the server, the sysops send a "cease and desist order" back to the hacker's host machine, threatening legal prosecution if any further attempts are made.
Bellovin, co-author of the recent book Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, took a slightly different view of Web server security, stating in so many words that collaborative networks and corporate security are completely incompatible. Part of the problem, according to Bellovin, is that many of the corporate systems in operation today are operated using "bad code" that hasn't been updated in years. Additionally, some corporations don't realize the need to move valuable information, such as client credit card numbers generated through Web forms, immediately off the server and into a more secure environment. "You've got to get rid of that hot potato as soon as possible," Bellovin said. "Otherwise, you're running a security risk."
Anyone doubting the ability of major corporations to counteract the ever-resourceful schemes of persistent hackers would have been convinced otherwise by this group of panelists, who presented a unified air of knowing all the tricks currently being used by the hacking community. I left the session with the impression that for these security experts, hackers were more a pesky nuisance than a major threat.
But the most interesting part of the session came when all four panelists expressed their views about the possible advent of untraceable electronic cash, a subject Newbold had mentioned in passing during his opening presentation. Curious to see whether these security gurus felt digital cash enhanced or hindered corporate security, I followed up on this subject during the question-and-answer part of the session, and all four respondents had slightly different views. Newbold took the position that untraceable digital cash was necessary to preserve our basic rights of privacy as electronic commerce becomes more and more prevalent, while Treese took a slightly more neutral view and stated that digital cash was too far in the distant future to be much of an immediate concern.
Bellovin, on the other hand, took a less favorable view and stated that people currently express little concern that their spending habits can be traced through credit card purchases and that they would be unwilling to pay for the added expense that anonymous e-cash would entail. Jones likewise said that most corporations, such as Digital, want to know who their customers are when doing business and that untraceable electronic transactions are not a feature most corporations or banks would support.
Collaboration versus security--these two ideas seem to be at constant loggerheads as the groupware industry prepares to embrace the Web as a commercial proving ground. Anyone who's been hanging around the Internet the past few years knows that electronic commerce is coming to us all, but the side effects such commercialization of the Web will have is yet to be seen. One thing is certain, though--as the Web weaves itself into the economy, openness versus security will be a continual theme that will play itself out on the World Wide Web. ¤
Lee Honeycutt is Production Manager for Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine and a PhD student in the Communication and Rhetoric Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Formerly a journalist with United Press International, he is interested in Web-based publishing and collaborative technologies, particularly those used to support group writing processes. In his spare time (of which there is precious little), he hangs out with his wife Carolyn and their three cats at their palatial digs overlooking "the lovely Mohawk-Hudson River Valley."
Copyright © 1995 by Lee Honeycutt. All Rights Reserved.