RDBMS and XML

Jon Udell (InfoWorld) writes about the coming marriage of the two:

Now that XML can represent both the documents that we see and touch — such as purchase orders — and the messages that exchange those documents on networks of Web services, it’s more critical than ever that our databases can store and manage XML documents.

Most of the information in an enterprise lives in documents kept in file systems, not in relational databases. There have always been reasons to move those documents into databases — centralized administration, full-text search — but in the absence of a way to relate the data in the documents to the data in the database, those reasons weren’t compelling. XML cinches the argument.

As business documents morph from existing formats to XML — admittedly a long, slow process that has only just begun — it becomes possible to correlate the two flavors of data. Consider an insurance application that stores claims data in a relational table and claims documents in XML. A hybrid SQL/XML database enables the application to extract fragments of XML from a subset of the documents. And that subset can be created by joining XML elements in the document with column values in relational tables.

We’ve developed a utility called “Events Horizon” which can interface to any ODBC-compliant database and generate an RSS feed for specific events. So, I could set up a SQL-query on the database for something I want to track regularly and then get the RSS events resulting from that feed delivered to me in my news reader.

K-Logs and Intranet Portals

John Robb compares the RoI of a K-log (knowledge weblog), as compared to an Intranet portal. Phil Wolff summarises his conclusions:

Can blogs can replace portals? If so, what are the relative costs, benefits, ROI? [John Robb’s] answers (and I concur): Yes for everything except “adding a web front end to business apps”

Blogs look better:
– Costs: $142 vs. $807 per desktop (Costs 82% less)
– Benefits: $1,658 vs. $1,886 per desktop (Delivers 88% of the value)
– ROI: 1,170% vs. 240% (or 4.9 times the ROI)

Considering that so many projects:
– Aren’t funded at all in this economy
– Fail completely (around 25% are cancelled or aborted)
– Fail partially (blowing scope, schedule, or budget)
Setting up a klognet seems like a low risk, high payoff proposition.

Masayoshi Son’s Next

I first heard about Japn’s Masayoshi Son when he made the Yahoo investment in 1995. After that, he made many bets – some worked, and others didn’t. He is now focusing on braodband in Japan.

Wired writes about the Japanese entrepreneur who “lost $75 billion in the dotcom crash. His new master plan: superfast, supercheap DSL for the masses.”

Softbank has spent close to $2 billion building out a gigabit Ethernet network and leasing copper wire from Japanese telecom giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The result is a service, offered under the Yahoo! BB brand, that provides Internet access to Japanese homes at 12 megabits per second – eight times faster than what Americans are used to – for about $21 a month. Every day, as many as 7,000 new subscribers fire up their plug-and-play DSL modems, making Yahoo! BB the world’s fastest-growing broadband service.

So things are looking rosy, right? Not quite. Softbank is spending $250 to acquire every new customer – $50 million per month. Outside Tokyo subway stations, rain or shine, cute teens in white Yahoo! BB mackintosh coats hand out a free modem to anyone who breaks stride. A second-rate baseball team, the Orix Blue Wave, now plays in Yahoo! BB Stadium. Such marketing gambits increase the company’s profile but only add to Softbank’s staggering $3.9 billion debt.

Business Week too has a story on him, and his plans to now focus on online-gaming as the killer app for the broadband network that he is building in Japan.

On July 25 he plans to open a Web portal called BB Games featuring about 50 titles. Players will pay a monthly fee of $8.50 to $13 per title to square off against others across the country. By yearend 2004, Softbank plans to offer as many as 300 games and hopes the site to bring in revenues of at least $400 million per year by 2006. Of that, BB Games will keep 20%, with the remainder going to game developers. “There’s no doubt that the killer application for broadband is online games,” says Taizo Son, Son’s younger brother and a partner in the venture.

Son is hoping to turbocharge revenues by getting his broadband subscribers hooked on services such as games that bring in extra cash. Already, Yahoo BB has attracted 2.5 million users to an Internet phone service, and it’s now experimenting with pay-TV over its network. Down the line, Son plans to expand into e-learning and corporate services such as videoconferencing. Japan’s broadband content market could be worth $6.4 billion by 2005, a sharp jump from $1.5 billion last year, according to Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc.

Rich Web Clients

Adam Bosworth comments:

Personally I like the web. It is easy, doesn’t require arcane knowledge to use, … So, in terms of user interface, I think it is generally the right solution. I’m always surprised when I hear people disparage the web as poor or limited or dumbed down UI as Macromedia does and Laszlo and Altio and Nexaweb and others have sometimes done.

Limitations:
But there is no doubt that there are two things it isn’t particularly good at:
Offline Access. IE’s attempt to make sites go on working offline is a joke. Offline requires a new paradigm.
Push. If Information needs to flow to the user more or less as it occurs then the browser paradigm isn’t always the best model, at least without help.

All by themselves, I’d argue that the gain outweights the pain. But add in occasionally or poorly connected which is the world of mobile devices and the more limited UI gestures that really work on mobile devices and I think the game gets more interesting.

There is a definite need for (near) real-time information delivery. This is where the publish-subscribe concepts powered by RSS can play a role. RSS needs to deliver via IMAP to a microcontent client. There are only two options: the email client/news reader (which will merge) or the browser. The former option can be done via next-gen email client like Chandler, while the latter needs the equivalent of a “digital dashboard” (harder to do, but still possible). I’d go with the former approach.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: Solution Building Blocks (Part 2)

There is a virtually unlimited supply of thin clients available. Millions of computers are being disposed of annually by users and organisations in the developed world as they upgrade their desktops and laptops. These disposed computers have turned into a recycling problem for the developed nations. Most of these computers are in good working condition it is just that there are not fast enough to run the new generation of software for most users. The typical upgrade cycle for computers is 3-4 years, and the annual consumption of computers in the developed world is more than 60 million units. This ensures not only a large supply, but also one which is continuous. A fraction of this supply is good enough to meet the needs of the developing countries.

Shipping these computers to the emerging rural markets solves two problems the recycling problem in the developed world, and the need for an affordable computing infrastructure in the developing world. It is possible to take the computers being disposed, invest a small amount of money in their refurbishing, and ship them for use across the rural markets to serve as thin clients. The cost of this entire value chain will be no more than USD 100 (Rs 5,000).

Smart software running on the thick server ensures cutting-edge performance from these thin clients. In addition, because the computers are so cheap, it is possible to keep a few spare units in case one of the units stops working, it can be quickly replaced by another unit. There is no need for expensive maintenance engineers, which can be a problem in rural and remote areas.

Server-Centric Computing

The second building block is server-centric computing. A thick server handles the processing and storage. Moores Law is creating very powerful computers at ever lower prices. A new desktop costing about USD 500 (Rs 25,000) is more than good enough to become a thick server and support upto 4 thin clients. Shifting the processing and storage to the server also simplifies the administration of the computing infrastructure the server is the only system that needs to be managed.

Open-Source Software

The third building block is open-source software. Over the past decade, Linux has emerged as an equally good alternative to Microsoft Windows both on the desktop and server side. An ever-increasing pool of Linux developers and applications is now available. What open-source software offers is not just free software, but also the freedom to make changes as applicable to the software (provided the changes are themselves released in the public domain). What open-source software does is enables the leveraging of a vast applications base for a near-zero price.

WiFi

The fourth building block is WiFi. The 802.11 set of standards use open spectrum to enable wireless connectivity across a distance of upto100 metres. While it is primarily seen as a local connectivity solution through hotspots, WiFi can become the fulcrum for rural connectivity in rural areas through the use of repeaters and antenna innovation. Recently, Media Lab Asia in India demonstrated how two points over a distance of over 50 kilometres could be connected by WiFi. Thus, the connectivity layer for the last mile for both voice and data applications could be WiFi.

Thus, taken together, the 5KPC ecosystem comprising of thin clients which are refurbished computers from the developed world, server-centric computing on new desktops, open-source software based on and around Linux to provide the applications base, and WiFi to provide connectivity, serves as the basic building block for an affordable and pervasive computing infrastructure across rural areas.

Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre and RISC

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Needed: A New OS

ZDNet (David Coursey) has an article with suggestions for Microsoft and its USD 49 billion cash hoard – start over, and create a new OS from scratch. The ideas mentioned are something the Linux community would do well to listen do and implement.

We need a new Microsoft OS that’s actually easy to use, runs easy-to-use applications, and adapts itself to each user’s specific digital environment–the other computers, phones, music devices, video gear, still cameras, etc., with which most of us surround our PCs.

WE NEED an operating system that’s smarter and presents a less bewildering array of options and choices than today’s Windows. We need more of the OS–especially network setup and access controls–hidden under the hood, where users never have to see them.

We need an operating system optimized for home and small business users and another with enhanced functionality for large businesses, or maybe just one OS that self-configures itself based on what it sees on the network.

At the same time Microsoft is creating a new user interface, perhaps it could also do something about Windows’s tendency to have problems that defy description, thus making it impossible to query the support database for a fix. Most of these seem to involve the system registry somehow, but RegEdit is not for the weak-hearted. It would be nice if Windows didn’t periodically get so messed up that a reinstall of the entire OS becomes necessary.

I have a little different viewpoint on the OS front: what we need is an all-in-one server OS for the developing countries of the world – all the applications that a small business needs, running off the server, so SMEs can have an affordable computing solution.

Brian Keringhan Interview

I remember reading Kerighan and Pike’s Unix programming book many years ago – that is how I learnt my C and Unix programming at Columbia when I enrolled for an Operating SYstems course in my Masters without the basic prerequisite programming knowledge. Excertps from a Linux Journal interview:

There are only two real problems in computing: computers are too hard to use and too hard to program. We’ve made enormous progress on both of these over the past fifty years, but they are still the real problems. And I predict they still will be problems 50 years from now. Of course, we will be using machines far more powerful than today’s, and our languages undoubtedly will be more expressive. But we will be undertaking far more complicated tasks, so the progress will not be completely evident.

I expect that much of the real progress will be in mechanization: getting the machine to do more of the work for us. There are many examples today–compilers, parser-generators, application-specific languages, wizards, interface builders–all of which create code for us more easily than we could do it manually. This will keep getting better: as we understand some area so well that it becomes almost mechanical to program for it, we will mechanize the process. And, of course, the level of language will continue to rise, as languages become more declarative (“do what I want”, rather than “do these particular steps”) and as efficiency is less of a concern for any particular aspect of a computation.

I’m less sure what will happen on the “easier to use” side, however. Here the trend for the past 10 or 15 years has been unsatisfactory. Computers are hard to use, even with ostensibly friendly GUIs and assistants and the like. This is a real problem, because computers are pervasive, and more and more all of us have to deal with them in all kinds of settings, some critical (think of flying a plane, where the “blue screen of death” takes on a whole new meaning). We simply have to make better interfaces to machines.

India v China in Outsourcing

Business Week writes that China is beginning a strong effort to take on India in the outsourcing game:

One analyst based in Hong Kong says the Indians are way too confident. In China, “costs are lower, productivity is higher, and language skills are better,” says this analyst, who prefers to remain anonymous.

While India has an advantage in its big English-speaking base, this analyst argues that English speakers are also plentiful in China. Moreover, the country has language skills that India lacks, says Tom Reilly, who runs the back-office center that Cap Gemini Ernst & Young is expanding in the southern city of Guangzhou: “There’s a nice, steady stream of graduates who are English-literate — and they’re also good at Asian languages like Japanese, Korean, and Thai,” says Reilly. “That’s an advantage over India.”

Then there’s the question of costs. “India’s getting too pricey,” says this analyst. “Everyone is complaining about how hard it is to get staff. China is not even close to that.” So can China overtake India as the premier place for white-collar outsourcing? “It not only can happen,” this analyst predicts. “It will happen.”

Dion Wiggins, the Hong Kong-based head of research for Gartner, estimates that China’s IT output will match India’s within a few years. Since so many multinationals investing in Chinese manufacturing want to do more of their white-collar work there, too, Wiggins thinks Indian companies must get into China as well — and quickly.

Verizon’s Big Bet

I worked for NYNEX 14 years ago – it remains my only job. It was a wonderful experience, and I have very fond memories of the people and the place. So, it was good to read this story about Verizon (formed by the merger of NYNEX and Bell Atlantic). Fibre-to-the-home, WiFi and 3G – Verizon is rolling all of them out simultaneously. Business Week writes:

Verizon plans to roll out fiber-optic connections to every home and business in its 29-state territory over the next 10 to 15 years, a project that might reasonably be compared with the construction of the Roman aqueducts. It will cost $20 billion to $40 billion, depending on how fast equipment prices fall, and allow the lightning-fast transmission of everything from regular old phone service to high-definition TV.

In an unprecedented move, Verizon is blanketing Manhattan with more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots that will let any broadband subscriber near a Verizon telephone booth use a laptop to wirelessly tap the Net for the latest news, sports scores, or weather report. If the rollout goes well, Verizon will duplicate this wireless grid in other major cities. Next up: third-generation wireless service, known as 3G, which lets customers make speedy Net connections from their mobile phones. Verizon will begin to deploy 3G in September, at least three months before any of its major competitors.

What’s behind Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg’s sudden series of audacious moves? Two major reasons: competition from cable companies and the CEO’s vision of his industry’s future. The cable assault is most pressing because Comcast and its brethren are cutting into Verizon’s cash-cow local-phone business and swiping most of the customers in broadband, the fastest-growing segment of telecom. To compete, Verizon plans to use its fiber-optic lines to offer Net access that’s 20 times as fast as today’s broadband — and bundle that with local phone service.

Just as important is Seidenberg’s conviction that telecom as we know it is history. In its place will emerge what he calls a “broadband industry” that will use the new, superfast Net links and high-capacity networks to deliver video and voice communications services with all the extras, like software for security…Seidenberg thinks ubiquitous broadband will transform broad swaths of the economy. High school students, for instance, could download the video of a biology lecture they missed. Doctors could use crystal-clear videoconferencing to examine patients in hard-to-reach rural areas. “The cable industry focuses on entertainment and games. The broadband industry will focus on education, health care, financial services, and essential government services,” he says. “I think over the next five to 10 years, you will see five, six, seven [segments of the economy] reordering the way they think about providing services.”

Over the long term, the strategy will put Verizon into completely new businesses. Though video may not be its primary focus, the company says that within five years it expects to distribute video services, which could include TV programming and movies on demand, so it can compete directly with cable companies.

RSS and Fat Clients

Steve Gillmor quotes Jonathan Angel from an email chat:

It’s interesting to see how Internet information delivery has evolved:

Early e-mail: Pure terminal emulation, nothing done on the client side.

Early Web browsing: Ditto.

E-mail today: All client side, unless there’s a temporary need for Web access to e-mail.
Web browsing today: Still terminal emulation at heart, but extended via scripting and plug-ins/Active X controls to perform many more client-side operations. And, of course, extensive disk caching is possible.

RSS today: Client-side (I’m discounting Web sites that do aggregation, of course), with optional, user-invoked help from the Web browser/terminal emulator. Limited reliance on disk caching.

RSS tomorrow: Potentially, even more client-side, with user customizable pull (i.e. cache preloading) of Web sites (or anything pointable to by a URL, and deliverable via a standard Internet protocol. Replication of entire resulting database from one client to another. Offline reading modes for use during a flight, or wherever no connectivity is available.

In short, RSS can make plenty of use, ultimately, of the fat clients that Microsoft and Intel want to sell us anyway, and it probably argues for the acquisition of a pretty capable PC, not an information appliance. Given that, I don’t understand why Bill Gates isn’t making speeches to the skies about it, or, for that matter, why Steve Jobs doesn’t integrate Safari with an RSS aggregator immediately if not sooner.

I think Email and RSS will evolve into an integrated microcontent client. I started to read in more detail about Chandler, and I think it has good potential to be beyond being a PIM and become an IMAP-driven microcontent client.

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InfoWorld 2003 Awards

InfoWorld writes about its 2003 Reader’s Choice Awards. Microsoft is the big winner. But there are some open-source winners too:
– Apache Jakarta (Best Application Server)
– Apache Axis (Best Web Services Product)

Red Hat Linux 8.0 came a close second in the OS category to Windows Server 2003, while MySQL came second to Oracle 9i in the database segment. Not surprisingly, spam was named the worst disaster.

Reconsidering Linux

Iam Murdock (News.com) writes:

Linux is not a product. Rather, Linux is a collection of software components, individually crafted by thousands of independent hands around the world, with each component changing and evolving on its own independent timetable…No, Linux is not a product. It is a process.

Let’s step back a bit and look at why people are flocking to Linux. It’s an open platform that is not owned or controlled by any single company. It comes with unmatched customization, optimization and integration possibilities. It is the ideal “invisible engine” for driving the next generation of applications and services. And it gives its users greater control over the evolution of the underlying platform, putting the user firmly in control of product release timelines and rollout schedules. In short, with Linux, the balance of power has finally shifted back from company to user.

The Linux distribution industry needs to start looking at Linux in a new and different way–as a platform to be shared rather than as a product to be owned. Linux distributors need business models that better match the fundamental differences that Linux brings to the market in technology, culture and process. They need business models that preserve the magic that has made Linux what it is today.

Excellent points…its what I have been thinking for some time in the context of taking the Linux components and making them available for a server, supporting thin clients. Manage the server remotely, simplify the desktop administration (nothing much to manage) and reduce the total cost of ownership dramatically. This makes it very attractive for SMEs and other users in emerging markets.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: Solution Building Blocks

The problem then is how can the ICT tools and knowledge goods be delivered to the rural population and what mechanisms exist for facilitating access to them. We present two solutions. The first is related to primary and secondary education, and adult education as well. This is through a model that is implemented at the village level called a TeleInfoCenter (TIC). The second solution is related to the improving market access and providing vocational training. The model is called Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons (RISC) and is implemented at a level of a cluster of villages. Like the problems, the two solutions are complementary as well.

There are four technology building blocks that we need to look at as we understand the potential of ICT to transform rural areas. The four technology building blocks are thin clients, server-centric computing, open-source software and WiFi. Together, they make up what we have termed as the 5KPC ecosystem, with 5KPC meaning a Rs 5,000 (USD 100) Personal Computer. We will first discuss the building blocks, then show how they can be used to construct the TIC and RISC centres which can facilitate the delivery of both education and market access, along with other services.

5KPC Ecosystem

The computer is a multi-faceted, transformation device. However, so far, access to it has been limited in rural areas to setting up kiosks with 1-2 computers. Deployment has been restricted largely because of the cost of the computers and the high cost of servicing a highly distributed base, along with the lack of availability of reliable connectivity. The 5KPC ecosystem is a solution which enables the creation of an affordable computing and communications infrastructure. By being able to reduce the total cost of ownership and simplify management of the connected computers, it becomes possible to deploy this infrastructure cost-effectively across rural areas. The 5KPC ecosystem makes real the vision of providing a connected computer accessible to every family.

Thin Clients

The first building block of the 5KPC ecosystem is the thin client. There is no local storage and only limited processing which happens on the thin client. It handles the user inputs via the keyboard and the mouse, and provides the graphical display via the monitor. All keystrokes and mouse clicks are sent to the server for processing and the resulting screen is shown to the user. The thin client can also be thought of as a computer terminal. Any computer produced over the past decade (a Pentium class system) can become a thin client.

Tomorrow: Solution Building Blocks (continued)

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BPM and PSB

Phil Wainewright has a mention of “personal service builders” and business process management, in the context of web services and the emerging SOA (services-oriented architecture). A few quotes to get one thinking:

Proponents of next-generation business process management (BPM) talk about allowing business users to directly manipulate process automation within the enterprise.

o the business, the PC loaded with a spreadsheet meant a radical simplification of routine calculations, transferring to the everyday businessperson a function that had once required special programming skills. Today, a similar symbiotic relationship is emerging between web services and BPM … What the spreadsheet did for numerical computation BPM will do for process work. (Howard Smith and Peter Fingar)

I see Personal Service Builders (PSBs) as the desktop element of the emerging trend in on-demand assembly of process automation.

I need to put these ideas together in the context of the things we are doing on the eBusiness suite…will write a more detailed post soon.

Lindows Webstation

Slashdot has a discussion on the Lindows Webstation, “a hard-disk-less pc that boots from a CD, similar to the now dead ThinkNIC, for $169 (no monitor). Different versions are available from 2 vendors, TigerDirect and iDOTpc.com. The TigerDirect version has a 1.1GHz Duron, 256MB PC2100 DDR, 56X CD-ROM, 10/100Mbps NIC, floppy, modem, keyboard and mouse. The iDOTpc.com version has a 800MHz C3, 256MB PC133 SDRAM, 56X CD-ROM, 10/100Mbps NIC, but without a floppy, modem, keyboard or mouse. The TigerDirect looks like a better deal, at least now ($169 = $189 – $20 rebate).”

This is almost like the Thin Client solution that we advocate to cut cost of computing as part of our Emergic Freedom solution, though in the Lindows case the machine will boot off the CD probably.

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TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: The Two Applications

The first application is the use of ICT in providing education. Specifically, primary and secondary education, increasing literacy, and providing vocational education. The current system is unable to deliver due to number of reasons primary among which is its reliance on mostly individual content creation and delivery, essentially through the public sector. The economies of scope and scale attainable through the use of ICT tools would make education accessible and more affordable.

The second application relates to expanding market access for agricultural and non-agricultural products. This would increase rural incomes and thus alleviate income poverty. The internet can efficiently provide access to a vast market for traditional handcrafted goods which can be sold worldwide, for instance. This would be an effective way of integrating the rural population with the globalised marketplace.

Poverty can be considered to be the result of two gaps: one, the ideas gap, and the other, the objects gap. Poor people have less material goods at their disposal as compared to rich people. Hence the objects gap. The ideas gap arises from the inability of poor people to most effectively and efficiently use the limited material resources they have. For any level of objects gap, an ideas gap amplifies the problem. Knowledge goods, efficiently produced and distributed by ICT, can bridge the ideas gap.

The two applications are complementary. Primary education has tremendous social welfare implications but the return on investment is long term. Being a public good, the returns cannot be fully captured and consequently private investment is unlikely to provide primary education. In contrast to that, creating market access increases the incomes even in the short run. Thus provision of market access can be commercially sustainable through user fees and so the private sector can be relied upon to invest in that application.

Both activities require a common infrastructure in terms of power, telecommunications, human resources, etc. Therefore, the common provision of these two can lead to lower average costs. Given resource constraints, a mechanism for efficiently delivering the two would require some degree of concentration of investment in rural areas rather than thinly distributing the resources.

The paper discusses the economics of the two applications with respect to the costs, and the benefits. The need for joint provision of the two applications is shown to be commercially sustainable. We show that information technologies can potentially overcome the market failures that have so far not brought the benefits of globalization to the rural poor. The paper concludes with a brief description of a mechanism which efficiently delivers the applications in a commercially sustainable way.

Tomorrow: Solution Building Blocks

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Countering Spam

Technology Review has an article by Vipul Ved Prakash, founder of Cloudmark:

Here’s a list of three rules (created after the most important features of e-mail) that anti-spam software should strive to follow:

1) Ability to send and receive e-mail from a stranger. (Whitelisting, payment systems, and challenge/response break this rule.)
2) Ability to send and receive pseudo-anonymous e-mail. (Domain-based authentication breaks this rule.)
3) E-mail should be free. (Payment systems break this rule.)

If we can solve the spam problem while maintaining the three features of e-mail, it would be a much sweeter victory.

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Groove and Small Business

Business Week writes:

Welcome to the collaboration woes of the small-business world. Technology was supposed to usher in the virtual office, but for many smaller outfits, the wider world beyond the cubicle doesn’t go much further than e-mails and instant messaging. While it’s better than costly phone calls, e-mail is an unwieldy way to work on projects that require team feedback on documents, real-time collaboration, brainstorming, or other forms of multiple-party communication.

Groove taps the power of each user’s computer, capitalizing on today’s fast, big-memory hard drives. When members of a Groove workspace use the Internet, the software looks for other members, links to the Groove documents on their hard drives, and then syncs them, so everything is updated. It tracks document versions, noting who made changes when, and if some team members aren’t online, it stores new information in a Groove Networks relay server until they log on.

For a budget-friendly, one-time fee of $69 to $180 per user, small companies can download the software, install it, and start creating workspaces for different projects, controlling which employees get access to what. As the needs of a particular project shift, new people can be added or removed. Groove is integrated with standard Windows products, such as Microsoft Outlook, Office, and Sharepoint, as well as Lotus Notes, so businesses can keep using the programs they already have. Davis says using Groove has reduced his need to travel, increased the information flow between himself and his consultants and clients, and allowed him to track projects more easily.