A MEDIUM FOR THE MESSAGE (column) - international communications (now the Internet)

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 06/92 - scanned

What do you think of the computer industry's love buzzwords and acronyms? If you're anything like me, you hate them. But just think how much time we save by saying MSDOS or IBM. And think of the economy of language involved in a word like `groupware'. Well, it is economical if you know what it means, it's not if it's just another meaningless buzzword.

This month, I'd like to enrich your life with a few more, taken from the groupware industry. Michael Skok, of European Software Publishing, is always got an acronym. Last year he was pushing DARTS - Data Access and Retrieval something-or-other. This year he's come up WISH - Workgroup Information Sharing. It'll probably go the way of DARTS, but the concept is very important.

Few of us are isolated in our work. We strive with others to get results. And, to do this, we need to share information. Unfortunately, personal computers have made this more difficult. They have isolated us in our little electronic worlds. We've become very good at polishing reports and presentations. We've become masters introspective planning with spreadsheets and outliners but in terms of the number of reports produced, or the number of presentations conducted recent research suggests that we have not improved at all.

The computer makers are now telling us that we've failed to exploit the technology successfully because it hasn't matched the needs of real users - it's a pity they've had to wait for the boom to flatten before realising this. Their answer is to have everyone tied together with electronic string so that they can share information. And we're not just talking about electronic mail. We're talking about shared documents, intelligent agents and dynamic workgroups, all helping to straddle the barriers of time and distance.

The necessary plumbing exists - we already have local and wide area networks, modems and digital telephone systems, and computers that can speak each other's electronic languages. All the bits are in place for us to start working collaboratively once again. Our years in splendid isolation are almost over.

Apple, IBM, Lotus, Microsoft and many other companies have all latched onto the importance of messaging standards. These could be likened to the national electricity grid. We know that if we connect an electrical device using a correctly wired plug, electricity will flow and the device will work. We don't actually care how the electricity gets to the equipment or where it goes afterwards. Similarly, any application could allow information to be sent and received across the network, or across the world, if only the underlying computer system could figure out the address, and package the file safely for transmission. You - the user - just want to give the recipient's name and let the system take care of delivering the message.

Instead of worrying about all the low-level plugs and wiring of the networking business, application developers and users can now turn their attention to what groups of people want to do with their computers. If you were part of such a system, you'd want the right information, at the right time, in the right format, at the right place. And you'd want to be able to trust its authenticity.

Let's run through these requirements. Once the whole world can reach you electronically, you can be sure it will try. You need applications, or agents, that sift incoming information for you and possibly take independent action. Some will look for key words or phrases and accept or reject messages according to whether they fit your needs. For example, a message addressed to the department head for authorisation of an expense claim for only £11 could be diverted automatically to the accounts department.

The right time for a user on the West Coast of America would be grossly inconvenient for someone working in Brixton but, like the answerphone and electronic mail, this won't matter any more.

The right format means that information has to appear in roughly the same format regardless of application, operating system and hardware capabilities. A Helvetica font on the source document might be displayed as something close, but different, on the receiving machine. Alternatively, key information regarding a document's fonts could be transmitted with the document itself. This will enable documents to look approximately the same to the receiver as to the sender. Document content is an area where we will see a battle, as software companies compete to get their document architecture and presentation methods accepted as industry standards. In printing we saw a similar battle which Adobe's PostScript won hands down.

As far as getting information delivered to the right place is concerned, you may be in a hotel or at home. If you've told your usual computer where you are, then an electronic agent there, or at your local server, could redirect the document to you. If you don't have a computer with you, it could send you a fax, or even send the document to the mail-room's printer, together with posting instructions.

Finally, trust can be established through the use of passwords. The originator provides a password which works rather like a royal seal. On receipt of the message, the recipient could ask the computer to check the source of the message and give an assurance that it hasn't been tampered with.

I feel that all this will be very good for business. The question is whose - yours or the computer industry's?