LESSON FOUR

ASYNCHRONOUS GROUPWARE:
FROM BULLETIN BOARDS TO TEAM BLOGS

R.I.Feigenblatt - July 2005


Preface

E-mail has its limitations when used to conduct discussions between large groups of people, which can only be partially overcome by the use of e-mail newsletters. In this lesson, we introduce the concept of "asynchronous groupware", which can be crudely thought of as an automated collective e-mail archive which addresses the problems we raise. The World Wide Web often provides a natural place to house such archives.

Groupware is also discussed online here, although in this lesson we will take the more historically correct perspective of its origins offered here and refer you to ground-breaking work here.

1. Origins of "groupware": UseNet newsgroups & BBSes in modem days

The existence of an extensively available, sophisticated communication system based on telephony layed the groundwork for early digital data transport. John Dvorak writes: "British Telecom, in 1954, developed the first unit that corresponds directly to our modern concept of a modem. The unit sent data over telephone lines at the then remarkable rate of 110bps (bits per secod)." Modem is shorthand for "MOdulator/DEModulator", which refers to the notion that we can translate between abstract binary data and sounds which the telephone can transport by encoding the 0 and 1 numerals of the binary number system as a pair of alternative tones. By using a modem, any telephone system could be used to attach a pair of teletypewriters to send and receive messages between them using alphabetical symbols.

Early computers adopted this system to effect communications between themselves as well. In the 1970's the number of computers exploded as the advent of the microprocessor and affordable memory chips made the personal computer practical. This led to another explosion in the manufacture of modems. Georgian Dennis Hayes grew very wealthy creating a firm to do just that. While his wealth has now vanished, his imprint on the industry remains in the command language his firm created to assist pairs of modems to bring up and tear down communications links between them in the course of a telephone call.

In the 1970's and even well into the 1980's we really didn't have the Internet. Communications between computers was rather ad hoc. A pair of friends in different cities might struggle to get their respective computer modems to communicate with one another. But when they got things going they could transmit files between their respective computers - including e-mail.

The most sophisticated computer users in those days tended to run the UNIX operating system on larger computers, rather than PCs. They created something called the UNIX-UNIX Copy Program or UUCP, which facilitated the exchange of files. People would form ad hoc daisy-chains or bucket-brigades of computers in different locations, which would call one another up by telephone on a semi-regular basis. This would create the basis of something like a post-office system. Therefore, not only would two computers in contact by modem exchange data of direct interest to their respective owners, they would ALSO forward alien e-mail as a kindly favor to third parties. If you knew of a such a continuous chain between your computer and a friend's computer, you could get e-mail to him without using your modem to call him up directly yourself.You will recall that nowadays Internet-based e-mail uses addresses might look like this:

SomeUserid@Somecomputer.com
Today, Internet routers silently do the heavy lifting to figure out how to forward your e-mail to the computer at which it is targeted. But in the days of daisy-chained UNIX computers using UUCP, an e-mail address would look like this instead:
"hop1!hop2!hop3!host!SomeUserid"
"host" was the computer on which the e-mail recipient, i.e. SomeUserid, read the e-mail, while "hop1", "hop2", etc. were the names of intermediate computers used to form the e-mail bucket brigade.

Once you have any type of mail system, whether based on paper or electronics, it is possible to PUBLISH through that system, much in the way magazine subscriptions travel through the US mail. So even back in the early days of e-mail, you might send identical e-mail to a large number of people at once, perhaps a group of people with a common interest, like butterfly collecting. But rather than use the more familiar term "newsletter", we would actually call this a "mailing list".

The aggregated chains of computers which episodically communicated via UUCP would eventually enmesh with one another creating what came to be known as UseNet. This provided a method for any computer to send e-mail to any other one - as long as a daisy-chain could be discovered. But such discovery was not always easy!

Some mailing lists would be of such general interest, that people needed a new method to make them available to ANY and ALL interested party participating in UseNet, because figuring out how to get them even to a single computer was such a problem on account of the anarchy in how computers were networked together.

This was the origin of the "Newsgroup" or "Newsfeed" or "Netnews". When UUCP was used to copy point-to-point e-mail between a pair of computers, it was simultaneously employed to copy ALL Newsgroup articles or "postings" - which were NOT addressed to any end-party in PARTICULAR, but rather marked as germane to an abstract discussion topic of enduring interest to many people. The administrator of any computer passing UUCP e-mail could then "subscribe" to such news by plucking copies for storage on his machine as his interest dictated. One or more users of this computer could later access these copies for reading at their convenience.

Newsgroups sent via UseNet provided the first way to broadcast news worldwide using digital communications. To a degree, it served something of the role which the World Wide Web does now, decades later. But unlike a Website, which in general is only authored by a single party, newsgroup articles (or "postings") not only could be read by anyone, they could be written to by anyone as well! This allowed anyone to take part in a global conversation pertining to a field of common interest. Eventually many thousands of newsgroups, each covering a separate discussion area, would emerge. To organize them, people would use our old friend the tree structure, to form a universal hierachy of topics. Various branchings of the tree would be designated with a period, a methodology we have seen used in our earlier lessons. For example

alt.religion.christianity
would designate a newsgroup dealing with Christianity, part of a higher-up tier dealing with religion, rooted in the top level "alternative" tier.

UseNet newsgroups were the first widespread example of groupware, software which facilitates communications between large collections of people. Although these discussions were transient, in that no computer to held article copies online indefinitely, some far-sighted people would preserv old postings in cheap off-line memory like magnetic tape to create archives. With the emergence of the World Wide Web, these archives migrated to the Web and one major effort landed up in the hands of the people who run Google. You can access (and yes, also search) this archive of over a BILLION UseNet postings simply by going to

http://groups-beta.google.com/
which is also a suitable place for making new postings of your own. Find additional instruction in the use of Google's UseNet archive here.

But UseNet was not the only way of conducting computer-mediated group discussions in the days before the Internet. The other major example was the local "bulletin board system" or BBS. Its inspiration was the paper-based bulletin board you have perhaps used at your church, supermarket, or place of work.

It would work like this. Someone would attach a computer to the telephone system via a modem and continuously run a BBS program on that computer, which would automatically answer incoming telephone calls using the modem. Other people who owned a computer and a modem could run a "terminal emulator" program on their computer, which would make it act like a teletypewriter that could call up the BBS. They could then type commands to the BBS program to order it to show them files, or send and receive e-mail. They could also generally post messages to one or more abstract bulletin boards archived on the computer running the BBS program. Generally, only one person could access the BBS at a time. But because anyone dialing in could read from and write to bulletin boards when they did, all these people could conduct discussions with one another.

The BBS system had the virtue that anyone who could telephone the computer running it (which usually mandated obtaining a password from its proprietor to gain entry) could gain ready access. Unlike the much longer latencies associated with global UseNet posts, a group of people could use a BBS based on a single computer to turn around a conversation many times in a day. While the BBS system was not "real time", it was potentially a much more interactive form of groupware than was UseNet.

While e-mail-based mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups and even BBSes still exist, today they have been greatly overshadowed by the rise of new Internet-mediated groupware tools, some proprietary and many based on the World Wide Web. This week we will focus on Web-based groupware which is asynchronous, i.e. mediates conversations in which the parties do not participate at the same time. This is very similar to traditional groupware like mailing lists, UseNet newsgroups and BBSes - not to mention their paper antecedents: postal mail and newspapers.

But next week, we will look at synchronous Internet-based groupware, in which participants gather together at a common time, but are spared the need to gather together in a common physical place on account of the convenience of the Internet. This is very analogous to traditional telephony, including conference calls.

Some popular forms of groupware, both synchronous and asynchronous, are indexed and annotated online here.

2. How modern Web-based asynchronous groupware works

Above, we observed that when we abandoned UseNet newsgroups for the World Wide Web as a means of globally publishing things electronically, most of us gave up the ability to write as well as read the medium. To redress this loss, people subsequently created more flexible systems built around Web sites.

As you recall, a Web site works by having a program called a Web server run on an Internet-connected computer. This program listens for requests over the Internet for Web pages, from computers running Web browsers, and then sends copies of the requested Web pages back to them.

Actually, Web servers are a bit smarter than that. They can also respond to more complicated queries from users interacting with Web browser programs. You will recall that some Web pages include text-entry fields, into which you can type almost anything. Our first example of this was the home page of the Google search engine, into which you could type search terms. When you clicked the "Search" button on the Web page, your Web browser would actually send the Web server a more complicated request, which would include the text you typed. By running an auxiliary program on the machine with the Web server, Google would interogate its sorted archive of the entire World Wide Web and then dynamically create a novel Web page listing the archived pages germane to your search terms, which it would send your Web browser to paint on your screen.

So not only could the Web server handle requests for extant Web pages, it could also, with the help of additional programming, respond to the free-form text you submitted to it by means of text entry fields, and generate brand new Web pages which never existed before.

This flexibility was also evident when we studied Web-based e-mail in our previous lesson. There, too, one interacted with a Web server, (which was actually assisted by additional programming) providing it with arbitrary text, and then received back new Web pages which never before existed.

The sort of potential which we saw manifested in the examples of search engines and Web-based e-mail can also be harnessed to help us create and publish new Web pages based on what we type within template Web pages bearing text-entry fields. By such means, we can enjoy the ability to write to the World Wide Web, as well as read from it - if only indirectly.

The ability to write to the Web is very general. Later in the course, I hope we will have a chance to explore the creation of Web pages of arbitrary design. But for now, we will study how we can use more simplified and constrained systems to participate in group discussions.

Asynchonous groupware based on the World Wide Web does not have to be restricted to text. Today, we have fast computers with giant memories and fast communications lines, which permit us to deal with other types of media. So groupware often lets us publish images (e.g. photographs), sound snippets (e.g. telephone calls) and even movies just as easily as we can publish text.

It would be natural for groupware based on the World Wide Web to use a unique, permanent, public Web page for each article or posting in a group discussion. Some systems use just such a method. This makes it very easy to unambiguously and publically refer to other items in the same or related discussions.

But there are often other considerations. Sometimes we want a group of people - but not the entire world - to share the contents of a discussion. That's where passwords which secrete Web pages from people who don't know them come in. Systems using passwords generally have you "log in" using a special Web page, and then remember that you have passed muster for the rest of your Web-surfing session with it. If you use a public computer to access such a system, you probably want to access a special "log off" Web page to make the computer you are using forget that password, so that the next person who uses the computer does not have access to your groupware facility too.

While it may be cheap and convenient to rely on a third-party ASP ("Application Service Provider") to provide Web-based groupware to support your group discussions, just like it may be to cheap and convenient to rely on another third-party ASP to provide Web-based e-mail, you must not forget that your provider can go out of business. While one would hope you could retrieve your archive of material as this is happening, it probably makes sense to back up online third-party archives by making copies on storage you physically control - like the hard disk of your own PC - or a flash memory card you stick into a public PC you use to access your ASP via the Internet.

Since e-mail makes it easy to send copies of a letter to a large group at no additional cost, unlike paper-based postal mail, you may wonder why you cannot use e-mail rather than Web-based groupware to hold group discussions. You certainly can, and you should weigh when one or the other is better.

One powerful reason to rely on e-mail is that fewer people are facile with groupware - although one hopes this will change over time! This article opines:

The biggest hurdle in implementing groupware is convincing people to use it. Training is required to make people comfortable using it, and if people don't feel comfortable with the software, they won't use it. Employees should be given incentives to contribute: the rewards could be either financial or psychological... In many cases collaboration is at odds with the company's corporate culture so implementation will be disruptive. Shifting a corporate culture from being competitive to being cooperative is no small undertaking. It will require changes at all levels of the organization, including the CEO.
Another thing which advocates for e-mail is relative privacy. E-mail may be TRIVIAL to copy and share, but the sharing is not automated! There are times when you want to be more discreet - just like when you whisper to a friend, rather than address your remarks within the earshot of others.

But groupware has powerful arguments in its behalf, which is why I am troubling to teach you about it today! While it is possible to use encryption to protect the privacy of e-mail, this is generally not well integrated, with the result that almost no one encrypts their e-mail, and most people would find this hard to do if they tried. Because the Web is often used for commerce, secure communications come second nature to it - so that it is potentially easy to make this a feature of Web-based groupware. So, in effect, you might favor Web-based groupware over typical e-mail if you want to discuss sensitive matters - at least if your trust your groupware provider.

Groupware is especially valuable, because when the membership of a group changes over time, it is very convenient to have a central repository of all the files and communications which constitute its business! If the management precedents of an organization like a service club are secreted within the e-mail folders of its officers, what happens to that knowledge when they retire or pass away? You might think of groupware as the way you use computers to systematically record the "minutes" of the group in question. Because groupware records thing electronically, it makes it far more practical to use the power of the computer to search for information over many years' of records: Even if you were to keep 20 years of meeting minutes on paper, who would EVER have the time to search through them by hand anyway? Groupware not only lets us preserve the wisdom (and folly!) of those who came before us, it also helps us integrate new members more quickly by giving them a single place to look for information about the history of the group. Groupware postings have automatically generated globally-unique identifiers which allow one to easily point at a particular item, no matter how vast the aggregate archive. This prevents things from getting lost, as when a record kept on paper is "temporarily" moved from one cabinet to another. And of course, like all electronic records, it is potentially very cheap and easy to duplicate a groupware archive, so that physical destruction of a facility need not mean loss of its historical records.

3. Survey of "free" (ad-supported) well-known Web-based groupware

I will not pretend this is a comprehensive survey, but I think it is useful to provide you with services I encourage you to explore on your own.

The well-known Internet portal called Yahoo! acquired eGroups, which it renamed Yahoo! Groups. There are countless thousands of extant discussion groups, and it is easy for you to create new ones, setting your own policy for membership, secrecy, etc. The contents of a group can be searched, although for large archives, Yahoo doles out only a few hits at a time, accompanied by a new ad. Perhaps the biggest barrier to participating in a Yahoo Group may be getting your own (free) Yahoo user account, because you are asked to answer so very many questions. At its home page you can sign up for such an account, or log in as an existing user of their system. I should point out that Yahoo also provides a free Web-based e-mail service, so that once you have a Yahoo user account you can enjoy both groupware and e-mail services. I hope that later in this course we will use another service called the Yahoo Instant Messenger service to demonstrate free videoconferencing.

Many people might prefer to use the free Google Groups instead of Yahoo Groups. Not only does it hold the legacy UseNet newsgroup archives we discussed above, but also new Web-only groups in the character of those provided by Yahoo, i.e. they can be private to an assembly of enumerated persons distributed around the world who access the facility using the modern Internet. Google boasts that "Every group has its own Google-fast search, making it easy to find discussions locked away deep in your group's archive" and that "Postings to both Usenet and mailing lists appear in 10 seconds and are indexed within 10 minutes." Find its Terms of Service agreement here.

Both Yahoo Groups and Google Groups allow you to adjust a group so that it can benefit from either the features of a mailing list, those of a pure Web site, or both. They also both obfuscate e-mail addresses in Web postings, so they can't be "harvested" by spammers.

This week I created a new Google Group called BHPLcyber. You can use it to post questions to me which I will try to answer as my time allows during the term of this course. This is better than having you get questions answered via e-mail, because your fellow students can derive benefit by reading our conversation after the fact! Once you are registered as a member of this group, you will be able to read all the postings to it on the Web at:

http://groups-beta.google.com/group/BHPLcyber
Unless you adjust your access to this group otherwise, (i.e. by default) I arranged for you to receive an e-mail every time someone asks a question or I answer it. You may prefer not to get any such e-mails, but rather to peek in on the Web site from time to time as your schedule favors. In either case, all postings are archived at the Web site for future reference - unless the administrator (me) decides to abolish the group.

By the way, we won't be using the special e-mail address the Google people associate with our Google Group. But the administrator has the option to use it in the ways described here. It turns out use of this e-mail address is the only way to post images and other files in a Google Group (as an attachment in an e-mail), but we won't worry about that for now.

If you didn't have an e-mail account before our lesson on e-mail last week, I hope you have now established one, perhaps with Web-based (and low-hassle) MyWay service. If you want to enjoy the ability to ask me questions outside of class via the Google Group BHPLcyber, you MUST give me your valid e-mail account. When you do, I will send you an e-mail which which instruct you how to gain access to the BHPLcyber Group. You can learn more about participating in a Google Group here.

To preserve accountability, only the discussion group administrator and author can alter a given posting to a group. Postings are identified with the validated name of its author, as well as given a time stamp.

Lately, a new method of authoring Web pages has become popular, called "blogging". A "blog" is short for "Weblog", i.e. a diary published on the World Wide Web as a Web site. Like Web-based groupware, blogs use interactive Web pages with simple templates to make the creation of Web pages simple for non-technical users.

When two or more parties author their own blogs, in effect, they can hold groupware-like discussions by hyperlinking to the postings others in their circle make on their respective Web sites. But in general they can't exclude outside persons, unless they adopt the troublesome practice of requiring passwords - which would be different for each of the Web sites involved. Doing "groupware" this way is clumsy at best!

Generally speaking, being diaries, blogs are authored by one person. But since "blog" is such a popular buzzword now, some providers are facilitating what they call "team blogs" - which are diaries authored by multiple persons. That pretty much makes them form of groupware! A popular facility taking this more expansive view is the popular Blogger. It was recently acquired by the folks at Google, but don't confuse it with Google Groups, discussed above, which is entirely different! You can read the Terms of Service agreement for Blogger and its optional Web-hosting service, BlogSpot, here. Instruction in use of the system is available here. Blogger not only lets you post words, but within the last month, image files like photos as well.

Blogger lets the craetor of a blog decide whether or not it is "private". A private blog remains accessible via the Internet, but its existence is not advertised to the Blogger community. A significant disadvantage of doing this is the lack of an ability to automatically search such a blog for content (as one can with a private Yahoo or Google Group). But by making a Blogger blog public, the Google engine will provide search capabilities.

While Blogger does not make backing up your blog trivial, at least it provides a set of instructions. Sadly, there is no quick way to backup something like a Yahoo Group, unless you archive posts one by one. For simplicity, you will likely elect to use the BlogSpot facility to host any blog you create. I have a blog there named BHPL, which one finds on the Internet at http://bhpl.blogspot.com

The groupware we have discussed so far imposes great constraints on the form of the Web pages that are generated. This regular structure can be an advantage, because once you learn the form a particular facility takes, you can quickly navigate other discussions which use it. A key aspect of all the tools we have examined so far is that one person has NO power to edit the contributions another has made - all the new party can do is refer to the previous written matter and then say his own piece. Truly collective editing of an "authoratative" text is impossible with these tools. While the integrity of each contribution remains "unpolluted" by possibly contradictory viewpoints, this also means every reader of the discussion has to wade through the *entire* morass and create his own digest of the proceedings, if only in his head.

An alternative form of groupware which addresses this problem is the wiki, from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, meaning "quick" or "informal". The basic unit of the wiki is the Web page, which can be edited by anyone in the community - sometimes even anyone at all on the Internet! To address the issue of attribution, one can add the mechanism of archiving (AND publishing) all backcopies of each Web page, so that any changes can be faithfully attributed to a particular party.

Wikis are especially appropriate tools for the construction of reference works which aspire to speak with authority on subjects where there is broad agreement, but very little universal awareness. So maybe you are not surprised to learn that a wiki is the very tool used to construct the Internet's famous anarchist encyclopeadia - the Wikipedia.

I also doubt you are surprised that the value of something like Wikipedia has raised the hackles of traditional institutions like Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). It was bad enough that Microsoft (and others) created CD-based encyclopedias that sold (well!) for a few per cent the cost of the traditional EB, nearly killing the company. But then here came educated, articulate freelancers who provided rival EDITORIAL content for FREE on the Internet. It is bad enough to be driven to the poorhouse because your business model fails, but how much WORSE when plausible rivals to your core "value-add" strip you of your self-respect as well! Find a critical discussion of the value of the Wikipedia, especially in the context of things like EB, toward the bottom of the Web page on e-books here.

4. Proprietary groupware

As we said at the outset, groupware can include asynchronous or synchronous aspects - or even both. Groupware also comes in many implementations, including as proprietary software you install on client computers. IBM spent about $4 billion for a hostile takeover of Lotus, in no small part to acquire its then-popular proprietary Notes groupware.

But within a couple years Notes creator Ray Ozzie departed IBM to start up a hush-hush new company named Groove Networks which worked to develop the next generation of groupware, called Groove. Earlier this year, Groove was acquired by Microsoft, and Ozzie is now a top-tier Microsoft technology officer. In recent years, Microsoft has offered highly optimistic assessments of the potential of groupware, not excluding the rapidly growing field of (live) "Web conferences".

Actually, for many years, Microsoft provided "real-time" groupware called NetMeeting for its PC-based operating systems. While the company has now abandoned this product, I found it very useful as a tool for servicing computers remotely located on the Internet, as well as doing live communications with other parties.

"Synchronous" or "real-time" or "live" groupware will be the subject of our lesson next week.

APPENDIX: GROUPWARE RESOURCES AND CLIENTS