CRN Interview: Ray Ozzie, Groove Networks


Ray Ozzie, founder and CEO of Groove Networks talked with CRN Industry Editor Barbara Darrow last week about the company's new collaborative software, rechristened Visual Office. Groove has not, until now, focused on VARs and solution providers. That will change with Version 3 which targets small and mid-sized businesses, as well as enterprise and government accounts.

CRN: Why should solution providers and VARs be interested in your new software?

Ozzie: One of the big improvements in version 3 of Groove is the forms capability. There was a nascent forms capability in version 2 but in version 3 it's dramatically different. It was very specifically targeted at enabling VARs--and corporate developers--but mostly VARs to build domain-specific, industry specific, customer specific applications that are relevant to the business processes of the customers. Very rapid collaborative application development.

I guess the first thing is a lot of what we're talking about and where we're going revolves around that.

We have had an early VAR program up for some time beginning outside the U.S because As we were gearing up for V.3 we wanted to test the waters, and try to get the model down and it's working, and it's playing well. It's very small, less than ten VARs in France, the U.K. and Japan but we've been getting a crisper understanding of what we need to do to support the VARs in terms of templates so they can get a running start quickly. Because it's been successful we're beginning to build what will be a U.S. based channel program largely focused on SMB later this year.

CRN: This is a visual programming tool, point and click?

Ozzie: It begins with the typical laying out of fields on a form but it's targeted predominantly at the scripting-level developer, you can do stuff without programming but it's primarily oriented at someone who understands how to do JavaScript, Lotus Script or VB. You can very easily weave web services calls and logic into your forms-based application. It's focused on being a front end to some process that they may have already invested in on the back end, take that process and extend it to mobile users very securely.

CRN: Would you compare it to Microsoft's InfoPath?

Ozzie:To the extent that InfoPath is trying to address the broader need of create forms that match your processes quickly. Some people will choose to use InfoPath and we integrate the forms tool with Infopath. The forms tool is not just a forms layout tool but it maintains a collection of records and the privileges that a set of users have for those records so it's a broader application environment than something like InfoPath which is just focused on forms.

CRN: So if I create a form I can protect just one field or all fields, set privileges by field?

Ozzie: That's right. You can create a collection of forms, lets say you have a customer problem reporting process, you can create the three or four forms necessary for that, the dozen views of data, by customer, by urgency, by status, can create a template out of that application and distribute it and many users can create instances of that application very very quickly. You can change the templates so it has different roles for different people. It's a very flexible application environment, focused on applications where people are both online and offline, working across firewall boundaries, Groove takes care of all the complexity of authenticating the users and managing the dissemination of the applications and the data.

CRN: Is the forms tool in all of the SKUs?

Ozzie: The new branding is the Virtual Office and the virtual office contains the things you need when you work on the road or in mobile fashionjust like in the physical office. In that visual office is the forms tool but other things related to conversations, related to projects and meetings, things that people do in a daily basis but in a virtual way. We're not packaging up the application runtime separately

From a developer perspective, the other [big thing] is Web services support. In V. 2 we had the beginnings of Web services support meaning you could write a program outside of Groove to get data in and out of Groove relatively easily in a constrained manner. It was a start. In V. 3 the surface area of Web services coverage is huge in terms of how many ways you can get things in and out and the richness of the tools that you can integrate with from the outside. That's very relevant when you're outside of groove and you're a Python programmer or a Java programmer and are used to dealing with Web services as the way to connect with other systems, you can use those same mechanisms to connect up to Groove.

CRN: What are the other big new features?

Ozzie: Most significant is probably the usability of the product. We've done tremendous rework of the interface o make it much easier and lower-training cost to get people up to speed and performance is significantly improved. The other major investment is Groove File Sharing, an amazingly capable feature that essentially projects the concept of sharing and synchronization and conversation directly into Windows Explorer so every Windows folder now has a Groove button in it and if you press it, you turn that folder into a workspace that shares that folder with other people inside or outside the company, puts red marks on files, lets you have chats and conversations privately within that folder, it projects all the platform capabilities of Groove right into the file system. It lets people share folders across all their computers, whether at home or at work and between people who are working together.

CRN: What desktop operating systems do you support?

Ozzie: Windows 2000, XP, Windows 2003 Server, 98 and ME. Twenty percent of the world is on older versions especially in small business, even the enterprise, and home computers are on 98 and ME and we believe you have to go where the users are.

In usability, I should say, this may be a little obscure, but what Groove is trying to do is preserve your attention. You have a lot of things you're doing online with other people and we've put significant online presence awareness and activity awareness features into the product so you can tune different workspaces to high urgency projects, to low urgency things so you only get interrupted appropriately. A lot of the features were a result of the beta program we've done.feedback from well over a thousand years and that's helped with the fit and finish of the product.

CRN: In terms of macro business things, everyone is targeting VARs for SMB, even Oracle and IBM are going after these guys, Microsoft is already there, how do you make your pitch that they should also pay attention to you guys?

Ozzie: I guess my pitch is they don't have to do a lot to get running and productive, to get solutions built in Groove. If I were them, you can make money faster using Groove. It's well tuned for low-cost not just the end user but for developing and deployment. If you become a specialist in building Groove based solutions, you'll benefit from the lightweight aspect of it. You don't have to make tremendously huge investment [to get going.] The biggest single thing to differentiate Groove from other vendors, is this technology is very friendly to the customer, the end user, because it's a zero server, zero IT solution. A lot of users especially in small business have a fear of servers from a management cost perspective. If a VAR has already deployed a server and system into an organization they can deploy this without training a customer in yet another package they have to manage.

CRN: At Microsoft PDC last year, a lot of the messages out of that show sounded a lot like Groove's message. Working across the firewall, rich clients vs. thin client, etc. Does the fact they made that noise help you or hurt you? Does it freeze the market?

Ozzie: I really haven't noticed an effect. In the accounts where there is a Microsoft rep [and] a Groove rep it makes things a little more complicated because the Microsoft rep doesn't know what they should be saying. But from the general market perspective I think everyone knows that things announced at PDC were more vision things and nobody really knows what it'll be like when it ships. I've been through many years of this. I can't say whether it's had a positive effect because it's out there or a negative effect. People in general are very focused on what they can do today, how to get a three month return on investment on what I deploy. Things that are out beyond aren't really on a buyer's radar screen.

CRN: Anecdotally, are people starting to spend on IT again or are they still kicking the tires?

Ozzie: We're most certainly seeing that people who have a need to solve problems are getting funded to solve those problems. The floodgates haven't opened and people aren't buying deep or broad infrastructure projects yet but in a business unit if someone's got a pain, there's now funding to solve that pain. I suspect VARs are feeling the same thing. I guess the words I'd use are cautiously optimistic.

CRN: What VARs and customers often say is they don't want to invest time and money in a technology or company that's not going to be around in a few years.There's maybe a flight to big companies. How do you combat that?

Ozzie: I don't want to sound arrogant when I say this but because we have backing form the kind of investors we have, we've probably gotten fewer questions about viability than other vendors of comparable size. And we're blessed in that realm. I think the reality is what we do commonly when we talk to customers is tell them the story about how other people are using it, how people bigger than themselves are betting on our future, it comforts them.

CRN: There are a bunch of other groupware products, Kubi and small companies building collaborative capabilities atop SharePoint, is that a concern for you or a sign that the category is getting bigger?

Ozzie: The collaboration category has always been noisy because the term is so vague and companies in the team ware space have either disappeared or gotten consolidated and now there's a lot of little Web conferencing vendors. I would say you'll see this on a continuous basis. It reflects that there are a lot of opportunities in collaboration because collaboration tends to be domain specific. If you have a good angle on collaboration that satisfies financial services or legal market you can do a good business.

Has it affected us? No I don't think so. The reality is the more that people gravitate toward the same thing, it let customers pick and choose on the merits of one technology vs. another. For example, the fact there's been a lot of noise around Web conferencing, lets us say, even though they say they're collaboration they're focused on real time, we're focused on mobile asynchronous. It gives you a nice point of comparison. Fundamentally, all of us believe the nature of work is changing from physical to virtual and that's why there's a lot of opportunity.

Our spin is we believe fundamentally it's also changing to companies who are working together are going it across firewall boundaries and the collaborative things we do will carry over onto the Wi-Fi enabled laptops that are everywhere. We're not in an always-on, high-bandwidth-everywhere world and the concept of decentralization and mobility is resonating and we've got a unique offering in that space

CRN: There's been a lot of news about enterprise instant messaging offerings going away. Do you guys have the type of archiving technology to satisfy regulatory requirements companies need to meet?

Ozzie: We've been asked to provide those features and that is actually a big one. V.3 [Enterprise edition] has auditing capabilities which are required by every regulated industry, financial services, pharmaceuticals, government, they're required to keep records of all you do.

You can turn on a switch and without interfering with the user experience of Groove, it starts gathering information about what the user is doing, signing it and putting into the enterprise repository, so they can meet those [regulatory] requirements. It's a big deal

From the standpoint of partners, we get the data to the servers, we do not build auditing analysis tools to serve those enterprise, we get it into a SQL database and form there it's up to third parties, specialty integrators, VARs to slice it and dice it and archive it how that particular enterprise needs it done

CRN: There is still IM [instant messaging] in Groove?

There was and there still is. What distinguishes it is its' 100 percent encrypted, very heavy security focus and furthermore, another aspect, maybe a little obscure, unlike Notes and other products, we don't dictate what your directory is. We have multiple authentication schemes and federation of identity and authentication. Another big Groove V.3 issues is we integrate with your smart cards, and your PKI in the enterprise, and we support people creating identities themselves at the edge. Plus in any given shared space, you might be working with people who were put in there by other enterprises so the product supports federation of identities across multiple enclaves. The IM is not based on a directory owned by Groove, AOL or Yahoo.

The so what there, is this is the way people work now. There is a certain amount of work that is enterprise-specific, and a lot of IM products specifically addressing that [Lotus] Sametime is good example of IM product focused on what's inside the firewall. But the company's were selling to and the reason we started Groove Networks seven years ago was because we believe the world is changing to a mesh environment of businesses working together and when we're picking a technology it's best to use one that embraces the way the business is changing and work is changing as opposed to the old way of building a big firewall around your organization.

CRN: How many seats do you have?

Ozzie: We don't talk about that.

CRN: Is there interoperability between your secure IM and the rest of us in the AIM world?

The answer is yes but it's not generally available. For our government customers, we worked with some VARs and partners, went through a number of interoperability demonstrations with all the usual suspects IRC, Sametime, Microsoft instant messenger etc., it's not a packaged product [but can be done if you want it.]

CRN: Is the majority of your business in government

At a very high level, as denominated by revenues not necessarily by seats, our business is roughly 40 percent enterprise, Fortune 1000; roughly 40 percent public sector [government, organizations, NGOs etc.]; and roughly 20 percent small business.

CRN: Is it fair to say with this release that SMB is a much, much bigger focus for Groove?

Ozzie: Absolutely, without any doubt. Once somebody downloads V.3 and takes a look at the templates out of the box, shared space templates, pre-built starter apps. Do you remember Lotus Nifty Fiftyit's the same concept. A lot of VARs bootstrapped on Nifty Fifty.much better than a blank sheet of paper. Ten very cool, simple starter apps that you can use when you crack the virtual shrink wrap ranging from very simple office management with in/out board, in-office bulletin board to a very sophisticated issue tracking system that lets you customize what kind of issues you want to track, set up tables for different fields and create maybe a bug-tracking database or customer tracking database.

CRN: You talked about no-server implementations but you have server software.

Ozzie: What I meant is architecturally you don't need a server to run it. Two people can download and start using it. One person can start using it across home and work computers without a server. A lot of small businesses don't have an IT department. When you get into government and enterprise, you need a server to federate groove with enterprise director, to centrally manage auditing policies, you might want your own server to integrate Groove into SAP or Siebel. We have a broad range of offerings but value proposition in SMB market is around low-administration cost.

The servers are also being upgraded, some immediately some later. Relay and management servers come out concurrently with V. 3. The Enterprise Integration Server is coming a few months later.

The relay server is merely in place to support on-line/off-line aspect of communication and helps them get inside and outside of firewalls; the management server lets you centrally manage policies and connect to your directory; and enterprise integration server is the server that connects to enterprise applications.

CRN:Have you had any change of heart about Linux support?

Ozzie: No change of heart if you're using the word 'heart.' We heart Linux. At our launch years ago, we demo'd a Linux version and put it on ice basically because there was no customer demand. We see huge customer demand for Linux servers but on client side it's still very nascent. For both Mac and Linux, it's not a religious issue. When a customer says 'I have a big order and want to place it but I'll make it contingent on the availability of a Linux or Mac version' we'll be coding away.

CRN:Your server products are still on Windows only?

Ozzie: They work on Windows only but we do have many scenarios where people are using Web services to integrate, where the logic of the integration product is on Linux connecting in with Windows.

For more on Ray Ozzie see CRN.