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More Than An In-Box May 6, 2002

  E-Mail is moving to a broader business purpose By Tony Kontzer

  Eric Rohy didn’t want to be disrespectful, but he can only be away from his E-mail for so long. The meeting had entered its third hour, well past Rohy’s self-imposed 60-minute abstinence rule.

“Anything longer than that and you run the risk of missing an opportunity,” says Rohy, product manager for a San Diego software company. Armed with a Kyocera mobile phone running the Palm OS and linked to a service called Symmetry Pro from Infowave Software Inc., Rohy used his phone to quietly access his Microsoft Outlook in-box without leaving the room.

He saw an urgent message about a first-come, first-served offer for the last spot in a partner’s advertorial. He responded in time to grab the slot. “It makes my job and my life so much easier,” Rohy says of his newfound wireless E-mail connectivity.

Rohy thrives in a business world addicted to E-mail, an addiction almost no one bothers to fight anymore. Like most people, he’s concerned about using E-mail better rather than less often. This pervasive acceptance presents business-technology managers with a choice of two paths for helping companies make the best use of E-mail. The first route, the one the biggest vendors are taking, is to focus on making E-mail easier to use by offering better in-box management and message filtering. The second, more ambitious route is to use E-mail as a gateway for broader collaboration and instant messaging, to boost the productivity of tapped-out desktop applications, and even to link to back-end systems.

E-mail has come a long way since the first text message was sent in 1971 by academic researchers building the Defense Department’s Arpanet, the precursor to today’s Internet. But maturity has brought complexity. In-boxes are increasingly unmanageable, multimedia-packed messages tax company networks, remote access is becoming a bigger priority, and viruses and spam continually outwit efforts to thwart them.

All of which keeps major E-mail vendors busy developing smarter in-boxes that will self-sort incoming messages, creating tools to support wireless devices, working on compression techniques for more efficient storage and bandwidth use, and providing more stringent security capabilities. Meanwhile, a number of smaller vendors are working to transform E-mail from a tool for sending and receiving messages into the cornerstone of collaborative business.

Groove Networks Inc. is at the center of that revolution. The brainchild of Lotus Notes architect Ray Ozzie, Groove last month released the latest version of its peer-to-peer collaborative software, which lets Microsoft Outlook users bring E-mail interactions into Groove’s real-time workspace. (Microsoft is an investor in Groove, as is Intel.) That means project-team members who share an online workspace can work simultaneously in the same file or access archived E-mail related to the collaborative effort without leaving the Groove application.

Groove uses a process similar to replication to create a workspace that can be used independently of the Web, so team members can work offline. If a project participant working offline makes changes in one of the team’s Word documents, the changes are automatically uploaded to a relay server when the user reconnects. The relay server then updates other project-team members whenever they check the online work space.

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young is experimenting with such a communications hub. So far, the consulting firm’s Groove implementation has fewer than 100 users, who’ve begun replacing AOL Instant Messenger with Groove as the instant-messaging tool of choice, says John Parkinson, VP and chief technologist. But Parkinson is looking for much more than a new IM provider. He wants to expand Groove’s use fivefold and let Cap Gemini’s Lotus Notes platform share instant messages and E-mail, as well as link to Notes databases in which the company stores critical content.

But there are complications. As a Notes shop, Cap Gemini is unable to take advantage of the tight integration Groove has built with Outlook. To make it work, Parkinson says, “We’ll have to do a bit of custom programming.”

Still, Groove’s philosophy foreshadows what many expect will be the future of E-mail: a launching pad to a universe of productivity and collaboration tools. “You can provide people with all the tools in the world,” says Groove systems engineer Nicholas Yerkes, “but they’re going to use what’s easy, and they’re used to E-mail.” Gartner analyst Rob Batchelder says the company’s technology “is two years ahead of the world” and believes it could represent the desktop platform of the future.

IT services firm EDS even wants to link its Outlook E-mail system to the company’s SAP financial and Siebel Systems Inc. customer-relationship management applications. The goal: To make it possible for managers to receive E-mail alerts when a project needs their attention, then use embedded links to go directly to the relevant application, says James Cook, senior director of client EDS, which manages EDS’s use of its own technologies and services. Cook expects to have those capabilities in the next year or two.

But not everyone believes the collaborative, integrated future is close at hand, including the dominant E-mail vendors, Microsoft and IBM’s Lotus Development Corp. These companies say they’re interested in providing better integration with back-end and collaborative applications, but both are more immediately concerned with improving wireless access, enhancing in-box-management tools, and delivering better integration with their own products.

Lotus refers to these more basic functions as “dial-tone features,” and its emphasis on them stems from its adherence to the 80/20 rule: Since 80% of Lotus’ customers use only 20% of the system’s features, the vendor believes it’s best to focus on refining those aspects of the system, rather than on the more advanced capabilities few users want today. “You have to stop yourself when you’re trying to rock the world and focus on solving user problems,” says Beverly DeWitt, Lotus’ senior manager for new business initiatives.

Overflowing in-boxes have overhead costs soaring at Creative Artists agency, CIO Keithley says. The biggest problem for E-mail users is in-box management. The flow of messages has become overwhelming, and people are crying out for help. At Creative Artists Agency, a Beverly Hills, Calif., firm that represents Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise and Gwenyth Paltrow, in-box overflow has become a burden for CIO Michael Keithley and his IT staff. Overhead costs are going through the roof as the staff spends more time helping agents wade through the flood of vital messages and spam, Keithley says.

Keithley himself unwittingly compounded the problem by giving the agents Cisco Systems’ Unity unified-messaging service, which lets them access E-mail, fax, and voice messages from their PCs or telephones. He didn’t count on agents saving everything, with some holding as many as 100,000 unified messages in their Microsoft Outlook in-box. “We had to implement a storage area network to keep up with the demand,” he says.

While the storage problem is solved for now, in-box management remains an issue. Keithley longs for the day when E-mail vendors will provide more tools for combating the problem. The categorization capabilities for organizing in-boxes are insufficient, filing systems are clunky, and the tools for IT staffs to help–such as the ability to establish standardized categories that automatically group E-mails as they arrive–aren’t there, he says.

Lotus and Microsoft agree that fighting in-box overload is a top priority, and they’re working on tools to deliver relief. Future releases of Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook are slated to include improved message-sorting tools that will categorize E-mails as they arrive, routing them to folders or simply organizing them in the in-box by category; expanded search capabilities that take advantage of all types of data stored in messages; and ways to more seamlessly blend E-mail and instant messaging so that messages needing brief, immediate responses can be turned into real-time dialogs.

But users may be expecting too much from E-mail technology, says Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, author of Overcome Email Overload With Microsoft Outlook 2000 And Outlook 2002 (World Wide Webfoot Press, 2001). The simple fact is that effective in-box organization takes work (see story, p. 54). “They want it to prioritize and organize without them doing anything,” she says. “People have learned helplessness.”

Our brains aren’t the only things being overwhelmed by the volume of messages. Networks are also suffering from a bandwidth crunch due to the growing size of E-mail files, which include more embedded graphics, HTML pages, and bulky attachments. At EDS, E-mail volume increased 107% in the past two years. In an effort to control costs, EDS asks employees to save messages in their local Outlook in-boxes rather than on an Exchange server, and it requires any file larger than 2 Mbytes to be zipped. EDS’s bandwidth challenges promise to get more complex as employees access and manage their in-boxes from remote locations and link to back-end applications directly from their in-boxes, director Cook says.

Niche vendors such as Stampede Technologies Inc. are trying to address the problem. Stampede’s TurboGold software accelerates the replication process between Notes and the Domino Server by applying algorithms and streaming optimization technology to compress data to as little as one-twelfth its original size. TurboGold also can be used to compress applications and databases running on Notes/ Domino.

Hydrite Chemical, a Brookfield, Wis., chemicals supplier, has cut its telecom bills in half by using TurboGold to speed up the time its sales force spends replicating pricing updates from the company’s enterprise resource planning system into a local Notes database. The shortened replication time will result in a sales force armed with more current information, says Jim Krueger, director of information services. Before deploying TurboGold, sales personnel “would get frustrated and not always replicate,” Krueger says. Hydrite this month will begin using replication to download CRM data into Notes databases.

But many administrators would like tools such as TurboGold built into E-mail. At American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s San Francisco film-production company, bandwidth is the No. 1 E-mail problem, Webmaster Tom Edgar says. The movie business requires employees to swap huge video files that can tax the network, and the struggle to keep up with bandwidth needs has Edgar looking for better compression and decompression tools in future Notes releases. (Lotus says R6, due later this year, will feature improved network-compression techniques.)

In the meantime, Edgar has concentrated on providing wireless access from Zoetrope’s 200 employees. The company has set up Wi-Fi networks using the the 802.11b standard at two of its facilities–its soundstage at the Niebaum-Coppola Winery in Rutherford, Calif., and at Coppola’s resort in Belize, which is a popular refuge for staffers. Employees at those two locations can use their Notes E-mail, provided they’re within a couple hundred feet of a transmitter. Remote access elsewhere is available via a secure Web-mail interface.

But Edgar and Zoetrope are ahead of their peers. So far, wireless access to company E-mail has been a question mark for E-mail vendors. There hasn’t been widespread customer demand for better wireless access, but Lotus and Microsoft both expect wireless networking to become more pervasive. They’re promising to make E-mail access simpler and more efficient for all types of devices.

Keystone Marketing’s CEO Karen Settle uses E-mail to link the company’s far-flung field reps. In its next Exchange server update, due for release next year, Microsoft plans to offer native support for wireless devices so they can connect directly to an Exchange server. That would let each device interact with the company E-mail system differently, which is important because an executive doesn’t necessarily want to listen to an entire 600-word E-mail over the phone. “In the car, they don’t want to read E-mail, but they do want to know if an appointment’s been rescheduled,” says David Siroky, lead product planner for Exchange.

More adventuresome wireless users will have to look to smaller vendors for the time being. Last month, Cutting Edge Software Inc. and Corsoft Corp. teamed up to let users of handheld computers running the Palm OS and Corsoft’s Aileron wireless E-mail application exchange word-processing and spreadsheet attachments with desktop PCs. Aileron has been integrated with Cutting Edge’s Quickoffice suite of Palm-compatible productivity apps, automatically converting Microsoft Word and Excel documents into Quickword and Quicksheet, and vice versa. Such capabilities are a step toward bringing mobile-device users into the collaborative environment via E-mail.

Despite the security threats raised by extending E-mail beyond the company firewall, smaller companies that depend on remote workforces often are reluctant to deploy virtual private networks and take on the resulting IT headaches. Keystone Marketing Specialists Inc., a Las Vegas company that provides high-tech clients with retail representation, is unusually dependent on a virtual workforce. Keystone supports fewer than 20 employees on its network, which runs Outlook and Exchange, but it manages about 1,000 field representatives working in teams of 10 to 15 people. E-mail is the primary link between the company and those groups.

CEO Karen Settle requires her remote employees to have their own Internet service provider accounts, because it makes no sense to extend the company’s tiny network to such a large mobile workforce. But the setup makes Keystone susceptible to the Internet’s traffic and reliability problems.

To minimize the risks, Keystone recently made a change in the way it communicates with its reps. Instead of E-mailing complete models of in-store activity for a given client, the company uses a secure Web site to post the models, then sends notification messages via E-mail, as well as small changes to the models and important alerts. This approach has reduced Keystone’s bandwidth requirements and made reps less dependent on the performance of their ISPs.

Businesses are using E-mail in new ways, and E-mail, in response, is changing into an integrated, collaborative tool. This doesn’t mean E-mail has to lose its appeal as an elegant, simple means of rapid communication. Rather, it can make a world of complex enterprise applications more accessible.