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Is it Time for Integrated Collaboration?

All the buzz about collaboration lately got me thinking about a conference co-located with Interop that Jim Burton and I organized back in 2003, and a term we coined--i-Cast, for Integrated Collaboration Applications, Services and Technologies.We defined i-Cast as the melding together of various collaboration applications, services and technologies to help people work together via real- or non-real time communication, and share and exchange information. While the acronym never caught on, the services and technologies we discussed are definitely hitting their stride.

I recently revisited a white paper I wrote about i-Cast, which described some of the collaboration challenges companies were facing at the time, as well as a vision for how to overcome them. There's good news and bad news--some of these challenges still exist, but with the advent of Unified Communications, we've overcome many of the issues and challenges. I thought it would be interesting to look back at how far we've come in just a few years.

According to the way we defined it, i-Cast included many collaboration technologies and services, such as audio/video/web conferencing, instant messaging, presence awareness, document management, file sharing and application sharing--all integrated with telephony or voice communications. It also entailed delivering standards such as SIP, as well as applications such as "e-meetings," shared workspaces, embedded collaboration and more. I-Cast included both hosted or managed services, as well as premise-based solutions, which could be mixed and matched when creating a total solution.

The premise underlying i-Cast was that while there were many point solutions, there were inherent limitations in each of the components. For example, instant messaging was ideal for spontaneous interactions and ascertaining the participants' presence, but did not readily integrate with other enterprise applications or allow for more complex interactions. In addition, audio, web, and video conferencing enabled geographically dispersed workers to communicate and exchange information in real-time, but generally did not integrate with tools like email and calendaring systems. Most conferencing tools lacked the means of support for integrating the conference with the workspace or business process applications (such as a CRM or decision support applications).

Now, with UC, many of those limitations have been erased. Document (or content) management systems let workers share files and documents, so that what's in the shared workspace is the most up-to-date version, including all of the changes that people have made throughout the document's history. But what happens when someone working on a document needs to discuss the document with a team member in real-time?

Without UC, users have to leave the workspace and application(s), try to determine if the other team member is available, and start a different application with a different interface, such as web chat or email. With UC, team members initiate a collaborative session within the context of their work, or from the application they are currently using, and do not have to leave their application and familiar interface to have a collaborative session.

We are currently in the process of moving to the next step: "e-meetings," adding a dynamic, persistent workspace to share and preserve teamwork, supporting document upload, event notification, group management, document version control, the ability to track changes and the ability to view data on who entered and left the meeting room and workspace. These e-meetings also include a way to view and manage shared contacts, tasks, calendars, discussion forums, and a document repository with presence, while providing a web access client to allow non-registered remote users (such as customers or partners) to participate in the collaboration session.

Today collaborative social software tools introduced by IBM Lotus, Cisco, Socialtext and a host of smaller companies are helping us move in this direction. UC and social software tools are helping to make our vision of i-Cast a reality: Allowing people, especially those engaged in collaborative business processes, to work together as if they are in the same place, while providing continuity between tasks and activities as people move between locations and devices.