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Monday, October 20, 2003

The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews David Fowler

Let me have the honour of introducing to you Mr David Fowler of Groove Workspace.

David_Fowler280.jpg

Mr Fowler is VP of Marketing and Sales for Groove Networks, a fast-growing real-time collaboration company with a strong financial backing from Microsoft.

Nonetheless Mr Fowler, who I have never met or discussed with before, answers my questions in the true spirit of an official corporate officer of Groove Inc., a lot of valuable insight can be distilled from this new interview.

I was impressed in particular with Mr. Fowler ability to recognize first, among my respondents, how important is to the marketing strategy of Web conferencing and collaboration tools the option of letting users try and familiarize themselves with a tool, well before asking for the signature of any contract. Outside of being the best ethical way to show how good your products really are it is the only effective way in which final users get to try, experiment and verify how well they can leverage the facilities available in any one product while familiriazing themselves with it in a personalized and pressure-free time zone. He clearly points out issues and problems relating to the marketing of online collaboration technologies and to the solutions Groove has adopted in countering them.

In this interview Mr Fowler highlights elegantly Groove strengths and weaknesses without ever unbalancing himself in the process. His responses show all of the wordship available to Groove corporate communications, without ever falling into the obvious or the redundant.

It is interesting to see how he understands and clearly explains the cultural, change management and adoption issues that are the greatest obstacles encountered by these new brave collaboration companies.

Mr Fowler makes some strong sound statements about what the market truly expects from technology providers and about how companies in this space should respond to this. I share much of what he expresses in these views.

His vision for what is truly needed in the online collaboration market is right on target and one may wonder how many VPs in competing companies have such a good grasp of the industry from such a larger overarching point of view.

But let me ask you:

Is Mr Fowler responses just diplomatic talk trying to make friends and family happy?

Are his answers consistent with Groove true approach and abilities?

Is the vision brought forward analogous and matchable to what Groove has to offer today?

I don't know the answers myself, but I invite you to scan through Mr Fowler answers while keeping a critical eye on the substance brought to the table.

Is this the company that has the "vision" of real-time collaboration and is about to bring it to us on a silver plate, or is this a super, high-powered and feature-rich live collaboration technology all dressed-up but with nowhere to go?

Robin Good: What are the greatest obstacles being faced today by companies in the Web conferencing and online collaboration industries?

David Fowler: The obstacles are less technical, and really more related to change-management. Real-time Web conferencing systems, and online collaboration systems such as Groove Workspace, which provides support for both synchronous and asynchronous work among team members, represent a new and different way of getting work done online.

Today, online work is primarily done in email with file attachments, and augmented by phone/fax/video and audio conferencing. While many are frustrated with how work gets done today online, it's what people are comfortable with and know.

All of us in the Web conferencing and online collaboration business must do a better job of education. The companies and people who use Web conferencing and products such as Groove are generally happy because they're saving time, saving money, and many have indicated to us that the end product, whatever that is, actually improves because the tools support a more creative process. We believe that online collaboration will be workspace centered, and complement existing tools that are focused on documents, messaging and interaction. The challenge for all the vendors in this space is to help accelerate the trend toward this more effective way of working together online.



Robin Good: Is Groove an enterprise tool priced at SOHO levels, or is Groove a SOHO tool that would be quite effective in the enterprise?

David Fowler: Groove is an application that is equally effective for any size organization, whether it's a team within an enterprise, or a team of people working together in a small business or SOHO environment.

It also is built on an open set of collaboration services that allow enterprise organizations to place collaboration services within their existing or new applications. While the application of our technology is different for different markets, we find the basic needs for secure collaboration to be common across all markets.

Groove Workspace the application is priced at very attractive price points (USD $199 for our project edition, USD $149 for our professional edition and USD $69 for our standard edition) to make it inexpensive for customers to try Groove and quickly receive a return on their investment. We also provide a free preview edition for download from our site because once users experience the benefits of the product their enthusiasm can become contagious. This has been very effective for us because when you introduce what essentially amounts to a new, or different way of working, the old adage really does apply: Seeing is believing. In our case, it's not only seeing, but experiencing that's significant.



Robin Good: If you could name Groove's greatest weakness you would say?

David Fowler: Groove Workspace's flexibility and breadth is both its greatest strength and potentially its greatest weakness.

Groove Workspace can be many things to many people.
It can be a more secure and effective way to share files.
Or a more effective way to manage projects, or conduct meetings, or conduct document reviews.
It can be used inside your company or to link employees with outside business partners.

So our challenge is not to get a customer or prospect to focus on ALL that Groove Workspace can do, but instead to understand the business problem that they're trying to solve, and expose them to the Groove capabilities that will help them solve their problem. They will gradually learn more and more about Groove, but if we try to expose them to ALL that Groove Workspace is capable of at once, users become overwhelmed.



Robin Good: And if you had to name its key strength you would say?

David Fowler: Secure replication of information to your desktop where you work without requiring a server infrastructure. Wherever I go, there I am.



Robin Good: Please name three online collaborations outside of Groove that have left you impressed for their unique characteristics and potential for effective online collaboration?

David Fowler: Microsoft is both an investor and a partner, so I'm obviously biased in this perspective, but I am extremely impressed with what Microsoft is doing in real-time communication with its Live Communications Server, and with SharePoint and the Microsoft Office System.

Microsoft is placing a great deal of emphasis on both real- and non-real-time communication and collaboration within its product suite. I view this as extremely positive for most of the players in the real-time and online collaboration space.

Microsoft has the market penetration and depth to help educate users on the benefits of this new way of working together online. It's really an acknowledgement that we're transitioning to the era of the "interpersonal computer" from that of the personal computer.

In addition to Microsoft's offerings, I've been impressed with the market position that WebEx has established, and I'm extremely interested in the emerging VoIP market, and am paying close attention to how Skype is gaining market momentum.



Robin Good: Who do you believe are Groove's three major competitors?

David Fowler: As you can surmise from my previous answers, I believe our biggest competitor is really the status quo. That's represented today primarily by email, and phone and fax.

Getting people to understand what's possible with online collaboration systems such as Groove Workspace, and convincing them that the learning curve isn't very steep, are really our biggest challenges.

The company in this space that's most effective in getting the early majority of users to overcome their fears of something new, and to see just how much time and money can be saved, will be the winner.

Now, as for specific competitors, in the enterprise it's generally IBM/Lotus and Documentum/eRoom. In the small business and SOHO markets it really is email/phone and fax.



Robin Good: What is going to change inside Groove in a year from now? And in three?

David Fowler: Two key areas: Broader collaboration services, and greater integration with back end systems and data sources.

In large companies the cycle goes something like this. We first have to overcome IT's objections about security, bandwidth usage and management. We've become very effective at this. We then typically work with a business unit within the company to solve a problem, and usage starts to grow. Once it does, it isn't long before the company and users are asking for how Groove can be integrated with their existing systems.

At the highest level, we are focusing on making it easier for people to quickly 'get' and adopt Groove Workspace, and then make it very easy to integrate Groove with what they're using today, whether that's Microsoft Office, a CRM application or a document management system.



Robin Good: Where do you stand as a company in terms of supporting interoperability standards?

David Fowler: It sounds like motherhood and apple pie to say that we support interoperability standards. Of course we do, and we're paying particular attention to XML and emerging Web Services standards. For us, the reasoning is straightforward. What do humans hate to do the most? Change. So rather than say here's a new way of working, you have to go to market with a message that says let me extend, or add value to the way you're already working today. Integration with existing systems is key.

Universal interoperability standards are obviously critical to helping Groove Networks and others meet the needs of users, who are far more interested in having a conversation about how you can add value to the way they already do business, as opposed to suggesting they develop a new way of doing business.



Robin Good: What is your position in relation to Microsoft DRM strategy and NGSBC in particular? Do you support their vision?

David Fowler: I'd be kidding you if I suggested I really had a great deal of knowledge about Microsoft's DRM strategy. So rather than comment on their products, or strategy, let me just say that I believe Microsoft and others are doing an excellent job about educating the market on DRM.

What I can comment on is what we're hearing from customers and prospects. There is a very distinct movement toward companies working more closely with their partners, customers and suppliers. But companies want to do this securely, and they want to restrict how the information they share is used. So support for DRM is critical to the business need to share more and more information beyond a company's walls, but do so securely and with restrictions.



Robin Good: Which one concept do you think has been misunderstood most in this industry (that is, the one that if properly leveraged could give the greatest return on investment yet)?

David Fowler: Collaboration is about people working together not about technology.

You have to support, augment and extend the way people work together, not suggest that people MUST change the way they work.

The issues of getting people to adopt your technology generally have much more to do with anthropology and culture than with technology.

That's why Ray and team created Groove Workspace to be so flexible and adaptable. It's meant to be molded to the way you and your team work. There's a long line of products in this area that have failed because they've tried to impose on people a new way to work.

That simply doesn't work.



Robin Good: In terms of pricing models, do you think those of WebEx and Microsoft and other enterprise players are sustainable in the medium to long run?

David Fowler: Collaboration software is tough to price because the value varies by the application for which it is used. The model of bundling collaboration software with other software (portals, content management, desktop applications) will be the long-term trend in the enterprise market. For single purpose applications the value is easier to match to the price, especially if it's niche or vertically focused. Over time, though, the issue for single-purpose applications is how much of what they provide today will start to become embedded in the applications people already use. As Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Oracle and others provide more and more collaboration services within the products they deliver, the market for more horizontal applications will shrink, as will prices.



Robin Good: What do you think of the marketing penetration abilities of a live collaboration technology like Skype (several hundred thousands adopters in less than a month)? Why aren't other companies using the same approach?

David Fowler: Free is very compelling, especially when it replaces a service for which you pay today. Skype is one of those products. Skype represents a new, and FREE way of talking to people. It has enormous market disruption potential. As with Groove, the early adopters are racing to check it out. Ultimately, for the product to cross the chasm and become widely used it must be reliable and supported. In addition, the market must ascribe a value to the product and services provided. Skype will migrate from a free to a fee-based business model. What they've done with Skype is what we've been doing with Groove Workspace. We provide a free Preview Edition from our site so people can see and experience how they become more effective and productive using Groove. Lots of software companies have adopted this model, and I suspect it will continue to be popular. Word of mouth is far more effective than advertising or other means of gaining visibility for your product or service.



Robin Good: Being the can-do-anything-you-ask-me-to type of collaboration tool, many of us have been surprised at Groove's lack of any good quality audio and of some basic webcam support. Wouldn't have cost less for Groove to integrate some of the outstanding technologies out there in the market rather than pursuing its own technology path?

David Fowler: Our development team started working on Groove back in 1997 and worked in stealth mode for three years before introducing a preview version of the product in the fall of 2000. So most of the VOIP and webcam products to which you're referring didn't exist then. Since that time, we've seen some limited marketplace interest for video support, and more so for improved voice services. We're definitely working to improve our VOIP quality, which is particularly attractive to our small business and SOHO users, but far less so to enterprise customers.



Robin Good: Will Groove ever run on other operating systems?

David Fowler: The marketplace will determine the answer. Native implementations of Groove Workspace for Linux and Mac OS/X are certainly something we have discussed. Our architecture would allow it, but at the moment there isn't enough market demand for either to warrant the type of development investment required.

Previously, we did invest in some development work to have Groove Workspace run on Linux, and Groove Workspace can run today on a Mac in emulation mode by using a product such as Microsoft Virtual PC. Groove Workspace performance in emulation mode can't nearly match that of a native PC implementation, but where we typically see it being used is in marketing/advertising areas where the creative team isn't necessarily directly involved in a lot of the team interaction.



Robin Good: If you had to identify the area in which we will see the greatest advancements in the online collaboration arena which one would you indicate?

David Fowler: A couple of areas.

First, I believe we will gradually see people transition to a workspace-centric paradigm of getting work done online that complements their existing tools for managing documents and messages.

Second, I expect major advancements in collaboration services, or what some people consider middleware.

These services will provide:

a) privacy and security controls,

b) presence management and awareness,

c) subscriptions (RSS) and notifications, and

d) support for mobility, or

e) the ability for users to work effectively whether they're connected to the Net or not.

These collaboration services will add value to the applications and systems that people already use today.

Users will be able to save time, save money and improve the quality of their work without necessarily having to adopt new work styles. That's the key, Robin, if we're going to achieve your vision for how people can come together more effectively online, without having to break the bank.



*********************************

David Fowler is Vice President of Marketing at Groove. MR Fowler is responsible for developing Groove Networks' marketing strategies; managing product marketing, management and positioning; Mr Fowler is also responsible for overseeing the company's corporate positioning, messaging, and strategic partnership with Microsoft.

Mr Fowler David earned his bachelor's degree in computer science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and a master's degree in business administration from New York University.

Prior to Groove, Mr Fowler worked in sales and marketing for KANA, Silknet, Gradient Technologies, Sun Microsystems, FTP Software and Chipcom Corporation.


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    posted by Robin Good on Monday, October 20 2003, updated on Friday, February 26 2010


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