Groupware & Collaboration Support



Design Space 



Groupware is software and hardware for shared interactive environments. In this context: The computer press and marketeers define groupware rather loosely. Any application that is networked and allows individuals to share data may fall into the category of "groupware". However, the press seems reluctant to label multiuser databases or electronic mail groupware. In his book "Groupware -- Computer Support for Business Teams", (1) Robert Johansen defines groupware as "specialized computer aids that are designed for the use of collaborative work groups." This definition is better than the "shared data" definition because it helps eliminate multiuser databases from the groupware category. Yet electronic mail fits this definition, as well as some other software sharing tools that experts are still debating. A better definition for groupware comes from Peter and Johnson-Lenz who are credited by many as coining the term groupware in 1978. They define groupware as "intentional group processes plus software to support them." This definition properly excludes multi-user databases and electronic mail that are not designed particularly to enhance the group process. Groupware is both software and group process. It can both enhance a group, and productively insulate members from the group.

Some definitions of groupware include the notion of a common goal. While all systems require some agreement among participants (at minimum that they should be jointly used), interactions can be predominately conflictual. Management of conflict is often a crucial feature of a groupware system. Vote collecting systems are an example.

Under the most rigorous definition, a complete groupware infrastructure has three dimensions: communication (pushing or pulling information out into an organization), collaboration (shared information and building shared understanding), and coordination (delegation of task, sequential sign-offs, etc.,).

For general discussions of groupware, see the following WWW sites: In addition, see the following articles on Groupware This article is excerpted from Groupware: Myths and Realities from Creative Networks. This article summarizes the results of a research program which studied how North American organizations use groupware and why they are using it. For an overview of the entire article, the table of contents is included. This article from YankeeWatch discusses the three dynamics of workgroups -- communication, collaboration and coordination. By understanding these dynamics, users can gain the most benefit from groupware products.

Design Space

Groupware can be categorized as follows:

Presentation Paradigm

Groupware is often built on top of some existing core technology already familiar to a user population. Thus, one sees groupware that looks like email, like databases, like television, like WWW pages, etc. This happens both to take advantage of existing products and to allow users to operate in familiar paradigms. The more popular paradigms are surveyed below.

Application Sharing

With the application sharing paradigm, a group of users simultaneously interacts with one or more program executions, the results of which they can all see. Such applications can be "group-aware" or "group-unaware". Examples of application sharing systems include XMX, XTV, ShowMe, and ShareApp.

Group-aware applications know that they are being used by a group and accept inputs from multiple sources. Obviously such programs need to designed with groupware in mind and usually come as part of a groupware system. Group-aware programs may run either at a single machine, with inputs and results collected from multiple sites, or there can be a copy running on each machine in the group with only relevant commands (for a particular site) sent to a site.

An important category of group-aware applications are sketchpads or whiteboards. These systems provide the participants with a "shared whiteboard" where everybody draws or writes in a shared space, usually through a set of different colored overlays, each one "belonging" to a different user. Shared whiteboards allow a document or image to be viewed simultaneously by two or more participants. All participants can then view the document while making annotations on it. Examples of such systems are MBONE's wb, ShowMe Whiteboard, NCSA Collage, and XTV. Multi-player game, collaborative design, and distributed, interactive simulations are other examples of group-aware application sharing.

Group-unaware applications, by contrast, do not know that they are being used by multiple users. Such applications are wrapped by the groupware system to allow participants at multiple sites to all view (and possibly use) an application (such as a word processor or a spreadsheet) running at one of the sites. The applications runs on one workstation and a controller collects inputs from all users, interacts with the application program as a single user, and sends the screen image to every participant's workstation. This control paradigm is also known as "floor holding", since only a single participant is active (has the floor) at a time. The controller can cause visual differentiation between participants by changing color or font depending on whose inputs are being forwarded to the application.

A degenerate example of such systems are screen sharing system, which are similar to terminal linking which was provided on old timeshare systems. The output to one screen is copied to other screens on other workstations.

Message (also called Email Systems) and Forms Based Systems

Message systems are systems using E-mail enabled software. In other words, systems that use E-mail as a transport engine for their services. In message systems, users exchange copies of documents, forms or other task related objects. E-mail enabled Groupware uses different techniques to augment the functionality of the message system. These are described here: Examples of Messaging systems: Lotus Notes, Active Mail, Imail, Coordinator, SHARE.

Databases or Document Collections


Interactive, real-time communication via some medium.

WWW Pages

World Wide Web pages can be used as a very loosely coupled database to support groupware. The WWW itself does not constitute groupware, since there is no process model.

Types of Collaboration

Floor Holding - Some systems have a feature called "floor control" or "floor holding", which allows different users to provide inputs to the application at different times. In such systems, there is a controller which keeps track of who "has the floor" and is eligible to submit inputs. This prevents two or more people from simultaneously clicking on different menu items and creating confusing results. Only the participant who has the "floor" can send commands to the application. Programs that have floor control also possess mechanisms for passing the floor to others and queuing up to get the floor.

Multiple Views - Some systems allow users to establish personal views of the group conversation. For example, each user can create a personal view of items of particular interest on a certain topic. This topical view cuts across discussion threads, bringing together an outline of items in a single table of contents. The user now has a single view of the related items. Each of the users in the group will have their own view and the system will present all the views in the context of the group discussion. Thus each group member will have access to multiple views.

Public annotations - Public annotations are comments made to documents that visible to all subsequent readers anywhere on the Web, without modifying the original document. Additional functionality allows other people to vote on the utility of any annotations added.

Overlays - Overlays allow the annotations of different users to be differentiated in graphical interactions. Essentially, each user is allowed to draw on the electronic equivalent of a transparent foil. Such foils can be stacked. Overlays are also used to add different kinds of information to a picture, each on a different layer. This allows independently produced information to be combined easily.

Voting - These collaboration systems let participants vote on various things, and eventually see the results of the vote. Voting normally requires automatic tabulation to avoid subjective bias. An example of such a system is a movie guide where users input their votes for a particular movie and the guide displays the best or worst movie of the summer. These systems often take polls and displays the results.

Audit Trails - The process by which a result was arrived at is often as important as the result itself. Audit trails provide a record of this process. Issues are how fine-grained the record is, and how non-repudiatable it is. Audit trails are usually part of the security mechanism, but are a groupware issue since the groupware, particularly in application sharing systems can obscure the source of an input.

Group Documents and Authoring - TBD.

Support for a Process Model

Groupware applications are increasingly being leveraged in the automation of business processes. Intelligent software agents can be used to initiate actions with little or no human interaction. For example, agents can be designed to monitor incoming information sources (e.g., E-mail or news wire services), screen the information content, and forward only relevant information to an end user. Agent technology can also be used in workflow applications to automatically route forms and documents through a business process.

In a workgroup computing environment much of the detail- intensive measurements of progress can be automated, making more detailed and continuous monitoring practical. More importantly, the human workers and managers can be freed to focus their attention on improving the process or optimizing responses to exceptions (which are detected earlier due to better monitoring). At the same time, this raises the possibility of invasive monitoring of activities, and is a cause of resistance to the use of groupware.

A concern is the existence of side channels in which actions are taken without the knowledge of the groupware system. Since the groupware system is maintaining a model of the state of the defined process, changes to the actual state that are not known to the groupware create the possibility of incorrect actions being taken based on an inconsistent model or reality.

Application-Specific or Generic

Some groupware are application specific while others are more generic. An example of a generic system is Lotus Notes. We have excluded from consideration in this report network operating systems such as Windows for Workgroups as not meeting the definition of groupware adopted for this report.


Openness is being able to integrate or use other applications. Open systems often allow an unlimited number of applications to be integrated into the shared workspace (in particular facilities for audio, video and `shared whiteboard' connections). In particular, group-unaware application sharing are by definition open. Examples: IBM Workgroup Solutions, BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work), Oracle Office

Group Composition

The group is usually composed of the participants who are involved in a particular group session of an application. Groups may be static or dynamic depending on the application that is used. The size and composition of the group may change during the composition of a session. One feature that is sometimes provided is the capability to have late joining. Late joining is when someone joins the session after it has already begun (not all shared application systems support this feature).


Lotus Notes 

Lotus Notes is considered the leader in the emerging groupware market with a 34% market share according to Australian Personal Computer Magazine. Lotus Notes essentially a messaging system, however it also supports an application development environment and a document database which allows users to create custom applications in areas like product development, customer service, sales and account management. It allows users to communicate securely over a local area network or telecommunications link, with a document residing on a shared computer (or server). Lotus Notes also incorporates replication technology to automatically distribute updates to a document. As a platform for integrated messaging and groupware applications, Notes claims to be the next generation in client/server technology and is an open environment that supports leading APIs and major industry standards. A messaging system and a distributed object store are two of the key components of Lotus Notes. It is expensive, and may be overkill for smaller organizations.

Collabra Share 

Collabra Share is a PC based document sharing system that looks a lot like the Windows file manager. It is also a messaging system and has agents which can collect message threads from outside databases. Collabra has added agents for Lotus Notes forums, Internet Newsgroups, and E-mail packages supporting Messaging API and Vendor Independent Messaging. Collabra Share also has a search engine that helps users wade through and sort all the postings in a particular newsgroup. Collabra operates on previously existing software such Microsoft Mail and windows NT software.

According to Infoworld Magazine, "Anyone who has to use E-mail, a newsgroup reader and Notes for messaging will appreciate Share's one-stop-shopping approach for both reading and responding to messages". Web Week Magazine calls Collabra Share an alternative to Lotus Notes for companies who don't need all the bells and whistles that come with an elaborate product such as Lotus Notes. Web Week also recommends Collabra Share because of its GUI. Advantages cited for Collabra Share include: price (installation and deployment under $10,000), ease of learning, good handling of unstructured text messages, good threading and organization, and a consistent interface for Mail , Lotus Notes and newsgroups. It was recommended for small companies that are growing rapidly. Disadvantages cited were that it as capable as the other more sophisticated tools such as Lotus Notes and the lack of a spell checker in version 1.0. The reviews considered it insufficiently powerful for larger companies.

NCSA Collage 

NCSA Collage is a groupware system for interactive analysis of scientific data. There are two main component suites in Collage: (1) collaboration tools such as co-authoring, shared sketch pad, and whiteboarding, and (2) shared analysis and visualization tools including histogramming, 2-D and 3-D modeling, contour plotting, and spreadsheets. NCSA Collage allows users to perform real-time collaborative sessions across hardware platforms. To handle communications between platforms, Collage uses a communication mechanism called Data Transfer Mechanism (DTM). DTM handles the automatic data conversion between different platforms and message passing over the network. The University of Minnesota Supercomputer Institute uses NCSA Collage to plot mesh surfaces (mesh surfaces are 3-D surfaces with the data values of the scalar field mapped to the height of the surface) and to display and animate 2-D Raster Images. Multiple images can be animated (displayed in quick succession) both from memory and from disk. According to John Hardin, NCSA's associate director for the Software Development Group, "researchers will be able to cooperatively construct, analyze, and debug programs on high-performance systems; they can have shared data visualization sessions in a WYSIWIS (what you see is what I see, the collaborative corollary of WYSIWYG) fashion." NCSA Collage is free and can be downloaded from the net.


Ariadne is a research prototype groupware system being developed at Lancaster University (UK) to support collaborative browsing and searching in library systems. The developers point out that both learning how to search and searching for particular material is often collaborative; Ariadne supports both of these activities by modeling the search process as a manipulable object that can be interacted with by multiple, distributed users. This model is used for several purposes: training regimens to cause new users to exercise all parts of on-line search tools; suggesting approaches to take at any given point in a search; providing information to "expert" searchers as to the progress of a novice's search with which help has been requested; supporting collaborative construction of queries and filtering of results; saving and reusing of successful search plans; and enabling asynchronous and remote collaboration.

Ariadne builds this model by capturing the command inputs and result outputs when users interact with any library search tool that is accessed via Telnet. Ariadne provides a graphic visualization of the captured textual information. Hierarchies of activities are modeled, and can be expanded and contracted by clicking on the Ariadne display. In this way, it is claimed that users can get a better idea about not only why the search produced the results it did, but why it was conducted in the way it was. Because Ariadne captures the I/O behavior of library tools, it does not require any modification of either the tools or the way in which they are used. It is speculated that the information collected can be used to identify missing tools and areas in which users typically encounter difficulties using the tools. Privacy of searches and ownership of search histories are cited as issues.

Iphone (Internet Phone)

Internet Phone is an audio conferencing product for PC users on the Internet. Users can conduct long distance conversation for the cost of an Internet connection. In order to run the Internet Phone, users need a TCP/IP Internet connection, a Windows-compatible audio device, a speaker and a microphone. Internet Phone also supports Full-Duplex audio which allows users to talk and listen at the same time. Although some say that products such as Iphone are a cheaper alternative to long distance phone calls, they are a long way from replacing phones. The biggest drawbacks are poor sound quality and difficulty connecting to other parties. Each party must be logged on via a SLIP or PPP account in order to receive a call. Unless users are going to be logged on to the Internet all day, each party must agree to connect with another party at a specific time of day. The main advantages of Iphone are the ability to save money on long distance phone charges by using the Internet; a low purchase price ($69, with a free working demo available); low equipment requirements (Internet account, sound card, speakers, and a microphone); and natural, full duplex audio allowing users to talk and listen simultaneously. CNET (WWW online magazine) says there is no delay in audio transmission, installation of the Iphone is smooth and there is well-thought out help system. The disadvantages are the lack of established standards; poor sound quality (CNET says that even with an ISDN connection, loud clear speech was required to prevent dropout and even then the beginning of a sentence was often truncated); difficulty connecting; and restrictive calling requirements (you can only talk to other Iphone users).

This research is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and managed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory under contract DAAL01-95-C-0112. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or the United States Government. 

© Copyright 1996 Object Services and Consulting, Inc. Permission is granted to copy this document provided this copyright statement is retained in all copies. Disclaimer: OBJS does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information on this page. 

This page was written by David Wells, with contributions by Ansu Kurien. Send questions and comments about it to 

Last updated: 04/22/96 7:50 PM 

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