Collaborative tools can increase the effectiveness of instant communications and bring greater business returns, but IBM and Microsoft seem reluctant to co-operate.
For many companies, the idea of collaborative software does not stretch much beyond e-mail and shared calendars. But a growing number are finding that newer tools offer more instantaneous communications and can bring greater returns.
Products such as Microsoft's Sharepoint and IBM's Workplace and Lotus Notes extensions are gaining popularity in a market IDC estimates to have netted £800m last year.
There are about 70 collaborative environments available or under development, mainly for the Unix and Linux platforms. Beyond this, there are over 50 online meeting places, including Webex and Microsoft Live Meeting; more than 20 e-learning applications; and innumerable scheduling packages, community sites, forums, teleconferencing systems and messaging systems.
The choices are many and often confusing, and IBM and Microsoft dominate because they both offer a framework presenting various collaborative elements through an integrated interface.
Christopher Harris-Jones, a principal analyst at Ovum, said that the collaboration market is substantial and growing. "I think the majority of companies I've seen in the last 12-18 months taking on collaboration tools from scratch are mainly those with multiple sites, often based in multiple countries," he said.
"They're doing this because it's either just too difficult to work on projects together, or because they want to cut down on travel budgets and meeting time."
Apart from project work, there is a need to keep field workers and home workers in touch with current issues and with each other. "In some organisations there is a much greater emphasis on working from home," Harris-Jones said.
"Despite all the press about it, this market is limited to a small number of organisations. The problem is not technology or budget, but stems from the concerns of management that if they let people work from home, they'll just skive - and that's a cultural issue."
One option is to use software to provide a virtual community supporting communications between workers and keeping track of the state of play in various projects. The hope is that, despite the cost of implementation, training and maintenance, the system will still show a real return on investment.
Richi Jennings, a practice lead analyst at Ferris Research, said, "We think Microsoft has just under 50% of the market in terms of actual live installed seats. IBM has about 40%, but it's difficult to be more exact. Certainly IBM and Microsoft will always trade claims about market share, but we do research with our customers and use other means to try to get a clearer picture."
Whatever the actual figures, Ferris, Gartner and IDC all agree it is currently a two-horse race, with Microsoft's nose in front. This is causing a problem when it comes to persuading the two companies to make their software tools compatible with each other.
The idea of collaboration should be an "any time, any place, anywhere" concept, but the dominance of Microsoft and IBM means they are too busy trying to grab the lion's share to care too much about co-operation.
"The problem here is that we've got two really big players with a stranglehold on the market and it's frankly not in their best interests to do anything other than pay lip-service to standards," said Jennings.
"A classic example is calendaring and scheduling standards. After years of talking about it and attempting to thrash out standards, we're still not there. Microsoft and, to a lesser extent, IBM, just don't have the incentive to make that dream a reality - but they are the only people with the power to do it because of their stranglehold."
The two big players are busily trying to increase their market share through migration software. Microsoft's latest tool for Lotus users who want to move across to Sharepoint is based on software from Proposion. Apart from Portal Migrator, this company also produces Portal Adapter, which allows a degree of co-existence for Lotus within the Sharepoint environment.
IBM is moving gradually from the Lotus Notes/Domino environment to the more open, web-based Workplace which uses the IBM Portal to run multiple server-based applications, including Sharepoint, within a single portal window.
User pressure may change these insular approaches. This has been demonstrated through a new tool in the collaboration box, instant messaging.
Originally developed as standalone options for AOL, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo users, these products have achieved widespread success in the consumer market.
Like it or not, instant messaging interfaces have appeared on many corporate desktops and the desire for AOL Instant Messenger users to speak to Microsoft Windows Messenger or Yahoo Instant Messenger users is forcing standards for interoperability.
Mark Levitt, vice-president for collaborative computing at IDC, feels user pressure is helping to force standards to be developed. "The standards in the consumer instant messaging space have taken longer than usual because it was in the leading suppliers' interests to preserve their own portal fiefdoms," he said.
"Now that businesses and hundreds of millions of individual users are demanding interoperability, the standards are advancing. There are lots of open standards in the collaboration space."
IDC identifies several mature protocols supporting interoperability including SMTP, Pop and Imap for e-mail, while Sip and Simple are emerging standards for real-time collaboration.
Sip (Simple Initiation Protocol handles the way IP-based voice and video sessions are set up across the internet, while the subset Simple (Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) is a protocol for indicating whether a contact is present on the network and available to chat.
Mike Davis, a senior analyst at the Butler Group, said, "One thing we've noticed is IT osmosis. Ten years ago you would learn about PCs in the office and then go and do it at home. We have seen the reverse of that now. Things such as Skype and instant messaging have actually come out of the home market and into the office. It's reverse IT osmosis.
"I've been looking at a technology called Collabworks which I see as a professional interpretation of the Skype model. This is an industrial-strength telephony and instant messaging system used by the US Army."
Since Skype's success, instant messaging systems are progressing to allow voice calls and video conferencing over the internet's IP network, as well as enabling file transfers and whiteboarding for co-operatively working out ideas online.
The problem is that relatively simple applications are being inducted as business tools. This is a worry for IT departments and any company that needs to follow best governance practices.
Jennings said, "If you're a business, you probably feel uncomfortable with being beholden to a free service where its design centre is based on consumers. You may want to access these networks if you want to talk to consumers through your customer services department.
"For use inside the corporation and between companies, you want something that you feel is secure and does things like archiving so you remain compliant with governance standards such as Sarbanes Oxley in the US or Basel 2 standards in Europe."
The instant nature of these texting environments has brought with it the new concept of presence. Before you can have a keyboard conversation with a contact, you have to know they are in front of their PC, fingers poised and ready.
Through the instant messaging network, a registered user is recognised when they come online, and their presence is notified to everyone on their contact list who is already online. A screen display can be called up at any time to show the status of everyone on your contact list.
Now that various collaborative media are being offered, users want to know which ones a contact can use.
There is also a new area that needs to be addressed, said Jennings. "A lot of people are talking about 'contextual presence'. If you're working on a specific company project, you're less interested just in the availability of people you know because your immediate need is to find someone who knows about the specific area you're working on.
"You may never have met this person before, you don't know their name and you can't look them up on an organisation chart. We need a way to let the messaging system know who is involved in the area you need help with. Then, at the very moment you need help, you can turn to the messaging system and find an expert who is online and available now."
IBM is talking about creating a framework for developing expert lists where knowledgeable people inside or outside a company can either register or be registered as willing and able to offer help.
This is the heart of collaboration - the sharing of knowledge to advance from the conceptual phase to the realisation of a product or system using the best possible information sources.
Another area of interest is the sharing of web addresses using shared favourites lists. This is the next step down from the expert list idea and can avoid duplication of effort by sharing useful sites among a team of workers.
As research progresses, it it vital to keep the project team in touch with the latest developments. Portals allow each member to display their latest milestones, developments and discoveries, but these are often too structured.
The arrival of freeform writing tools such as blogs and collaborative wikis where documents and articles can be developed and modified over time, has been noted and are being linked into portals.
Really simple syndication (RSS) and atom technologies are also expanding collaborative possibilities by allowing syndication of information between portals or adding newsfeeds from web news services.
The tools are there but the problem is getting people to use them. Harris-Jones suggests a gradual immersion is better than leaping in. "You can't tell people to use collaboration software. If they don't like doing it, they just won't use it or will use it badly and you'll end up in a worse situation than you were in before.
"It's probably best to introduce collaborative software on a project basis. Always ensure there are two or three real enthusiasts who really like the software and can act as evangelists. As people use the software and see how it can make life much easier, it tends to spread virally throughout the company - just like e-mail and scheduling has."