|Software genius gets into Groove|
|02/12/2001 - Updated 12:53 AM ET|
|Software genius gets into Groove|
By Kevin Maney, USA TODAY
BEVERLY, Mass. — Here's something to think about if Groove turns out to be one of the great developments in computer software history: Ray Ozzie, the brilliant programmer who created Lotus Notes and Groove, solved some of the company's most vexing problems while naked. You know — in the shower. "It's a unit of thought for Ray," says Ken Moore, a co-founder of Groove Networks, based here. "It's like, 'That problem will take three showers.' " Ozzie would actually jot notes in the shower at home, coming into the office with smeared, wet paper, until Moore found waterproof paper, which Ozzie still uses.
The thing is, the technique apparently works. Groove, a software program due to be released in late March or early April, is being cautiously called a breakthrough. Groove is like Notes, which lets a company's far-flung employees collaborate using computers and corporate networks. Notes has 68 million users and helped change the way corporations think about computer networks. But Groove is built for the Internet and could be used by many times more people. Technology executives and developers await Groove the way science-fiction fans pine for George Lucas' next Star Wars movie.
Ozzie, at 44, stands on the verge of becoming a certifiable legend, as long as Groove lives up to the expectations of people like Ford Calhoun, chief information officer of drug company GlaxoSmithKline. "Groove is a very exciting concept," he says. "And anything Ray Ozzie is focusing on deserves attention, just for that reason."
Ozzie is aware of the hopes and faith placed in him. In his likable, easygoing way, he comes across as confident about it, though not cocky. "All I have to do is not let them down," he says. "It's something I have no insecurity about."
Those who know Ozzie admit they are astounded that this one brain has been able to conceive of first Notes and now Groove. Notes was far ahead of its time. Groove seems to be that way, too. Both software programs were extremely hard to bring to life, and each time Ozzie has put together a relatively small team and toiled for years in silence to do it, his perseverance running counter to the quick-hit approach of many tech start-ups. And while major corporations such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle plow gobs of resources into developing products of Groove's magnitude, Ozzie does it in a shoebox.
Mitch Kapor, the legendary founder of Lotus who backed Ozzie to do both Notes and Groove, says Ozzie has turned out to have a rare combination of vision, technical depth and the patience to do big things. "And he's a nice, incredibly decent person," says Kapor, now a partner at venture capital firm Accel Partners. "He's a very full-spectrum guy."
Groove breaks barriers
To get a sense of why Ozzie is an interesting character, it helps to know what Groove is and why it's important. To a user, Groove might not immediately seem that amazing. It's designed to allow groups of people to work together over the Internet. Open it up, and you see a number of different, simple boxes and buttons. They allow you to communicate in several ways with anyone who's part of your Groove group. You can chat or send files back and forth, talk, leave e-mail, draw, navigate the Web together or jointly use software tacked on by third parties — for instance, a computer-assisted design (CAD) program for making engineering drawings. (See box, right.)
It's simple on the surface, but underneath it cracks through a number of difficult barriers. It's based on peer-to-peer computing, a concept only now catching on but which Ozzie grasped more than 4 years ago. Groove doesn't go through a central server. It doesn't need to be maintained by a corporate technology department, as is the case with Notes. Once you establish your group, you are connecting over the Internet directly to the other members' computers. The Groove programs on all the computers keep talking to one another to make sure everyone's seeing the same thing at the same time, or has the same version of a file.
This way, Groove is much more flexible and ad hoc than Notes. Anyone can set up a group with anyone who has Groove and just start working. Doing that and keeping all the group members' files and data coordinated using peer-to-peer computing is a major programming feat. "That's the amazing thing," says Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst. "It helps clarify what peer-to-peer can be."
There's more. Groove incorporates powerful encryption but does so totally behind the scenes. Users never have to think about it. But it's key. Groove is meant to be used by groups that include some people inside a corporation and some from outside. If groups like that are going to work on sensitive material — like designs for a new jet engine or strategies for a product launch — they need to know that only that group can see it. One other big thing: Groove is built to be, in computer-speak, a platform. Like Windows or the Palm operating system, it's not a finished, closed product. It's meant to be built upon by outside software developers. So Groove had to be designed to work as is, while keeping in mind that it will probably be used in ways Ozzie and his crew never dreamed of. That can be a tough balancing act.
By putting all these pieces together, Groove allows developers to jump in and create applications that do brand-new things. In a sense, it's like Sony creating PlayStation 2, allowing game developers to jump from that platform to reach new heights. "Groove raises the bar dramatically from where you can start," says Phil Stanhope, a former Lotus engineer who is starting a business to build on Groove.
At GlaxoSmithKline, Calhoun finds Groove enticing. He points out how it can be used by teams working to discover drugs. Those teams usually consist of some scientists inside the company and some at other companies or universities. They need to share sensitive information and work together. Yet the members change at different stages of the process over many years. "Groove seems to uniquely lend itself to this type of problem," Calhoun says.
Yet Groove isn't just for heavy-lifting scientists. A consumer version will be available free. Members of a family could be a Groove group and use the software to keep in touch, share photos, coordinate calendars and more. Andrew Mahon, Groove's marketing director, takes Groove on the road and uses it to link to his kids at home so they can play a computer chess game together while talking over the Net connection.
Doodling and daring
One of Groove's four founders is Jack Ozzie, Ray's younger brother by 5 years. Jack is as fidgety and wired as Ray is cool and smooth. In his nondescript office in this nondescript office park Groove calls home, Jack brings up the first time Ray told him about what would become Groove. It was a 1997 family gathering. "Ray took me aside and said he had these ideas," Jack says. "He told me it was going to replace the telephone, e-mail and the napkin." The napkin? Jack explains that the napkin is what you doodle on when telling colleagues an idea over lunch.
Growing up in Chicago, Ray had always been a builder. Legos. Heath Kit radios. In high school, he built a lighting sequencer for a variety show. "It was always on a big scale," Jack says. "It had to be done right. For the sequencer, he worked with a guy in the metal shop to build a box for it so it would look good and be perfect."
Ray Ozzie went to college at the University of Illinois and majored in computer science. There, he was exposed to an early, archaic system called Plato, which allowed limited collaboration over the school's network. It changed Ozzie's life. He could never again stop thinking, as he says, about "using computers for human interaction."
After graduating in 1979, Ozzie landed smack in the big leagues of computer programming. First, he went to work at Data General under Jonathan Sachs, a legend who went on to write Lotus 1-2-3, the program that got personal computers into businesses. Next, Ozzie worked at Software Arts under Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, who had created the breakthrough VisiCalc spreadsheet. Bricklin was one of the biggest names in computing at the time. He recalls, "We introduced Ray to Bill Gates at Comdex. It was already clear then that Ray was a star. We didn't take every programmer and introduce him to Bill Gates."
Gates, by the way, has since said that Ozzie is one of the five best programmers on the planet.
In 1983, Sachs lured Ozzie into Lotus. "He came to Lotus with kind of a deal," recalls Kapor, who was Lotus' CEO then. Ozzie would lead creation of Symphony, a follow-up to 1-2-3. When that was done, Lotus would back him to "do this collaborative, network-oriented product he had in mind," Kapor says.
That was Notes. Ozzie set up a separate company, Iris, and took 5 years to build Notes. When done, it was far ahead of its time — a product built to take advantage of computer networks and graphical interfaces on PCs years before either were common. By the early 1990s, Notes became Lotus' most important product. In 1995, IBM bought Lotus for $3.3 billion, specifically to get Notes and Ozzie.
Ozzie stuck around for a couple of years, but he had these other ideas clanging around in his head. They didn't quite fit with Notes or IBM. In 1997, he left — and took brother Jack into his confidence as the rest of the Ozzie extended family talked and ate.
The wizardry of Ozzie
How does Ozzie's mind work? "I know I can build stuff from the bottom up," he says, sitting at a round table in his office. "So I try to think from the top down: What does the customer or user really need?" His technical confidence lets him start with the big idea, instead of starting with what can be done based on today's technology. He knows that with enough sweat, he can make any big idea work.
Ozzie and his wife, Dawna, have two kids: a son, 17, and a daughter, 13. They've all been computer nuts for years. They've had a T1 high-speed data line into their home since 1993. When he was thinking about Groove, Ozzie would watch his son play online computer games like Quake. Players from all over the world would form their own groups, set rules and chat while playing. His daughter would do some of the same things using America Online's instant messaging. "They solved problems way more effectively than you could in business," Ozzie says. It was part of the inspiration for what would go into Groove.
In October 1997, he started the company with four people: Jack Ozzie, Moore and Eric Patey. All had worked with Ozzie on Notes. For months, they sat at four tables pushed together and hacked out ideas. To concentrate, they'd each retreat to an "office" — a set of headphones that would shut the others out with music. A little at a time, they figured out the problems of peer-to-peer and encryption and how to build a platform. They started hiring but kept such secrecy that they wouldn't tell candidates what they'd be working on.
Ozzie originally called the company Rhythmics. "It didn't roll off the tongue, and nobody could spell it," Jack Ozzie says. "It was supposed to be about improvisation. We were using words like grooving and jamming. Ray popped out of his office one day and said, 'How does Groove grab you?' I said, 'Yeah!' "
Ray Ozzie funded the company himself, using his riches from Notes. In 1998, Kapor invested as an individual. Later, when Kapor joined Accel Partners, he persuaded Accel to jump in.
No one outside knew what Ozzie was doing until April 2000, when Groove briefed early potential customers and partners. Reaction was off the charts. Stanhope quit his job at Perot Systems to launch a Groove-based company. Bricklin endorsed Groove. John Wollman at Alliance Consulting jumped at the chance to work with Groove to reinvent so-called customer relationship management (CRM) systems for businesses. "We'd been waiting for a technology that would enable our vision of the future of CRM," he says.
Groove has become part of the chatter across the technology industry. Gene Kan, who helped jump-start peer-to-peer upstart Gnutella, is watching closely. Venture capitalists from Heidi Roizen to Steve Jurvetson bring it up in conversation. They all want to know what Ozzie has cooked up.
These days, the 200 employees at Groove are hustling to put finishing touches on the product for its official unveiling. Ozzie, who overcame debilitating stage fright to become an amiable presenter, is getting his patter down for the event.
And after that? Ozzie is prepared to remain patient. Notes took years to catch on. Groove might, too.
"Will it be as big as Notes?" asks Kapor, who has seen a parade of tech developments come and go. "It's a major ambition, trying to be a new platform and capitalizing on technology trends. It's a challenge to capture the commercial value out of that. I think it can be done and will be done. Hopefully, Groove will be 10 times as big as Notes."
If Ozzie succeeds, think of the effect on programmers everywhere. When they get stuck, you might hear them excuse themselves to go take a shower.
|02/12/2001 - Updated 12:51 AM ET|
|How Groove works|
By Sam Ward, USA TODAY
Groove is new software from Ray Ozzie, the programmer who created Lotus Notes. More than three years in the making, here's how Groove works:
Anyone can download a basic version (about 10 MB) at www.groove.net. Corporations would pay a licensing fee to create specialized versions for their purposes.
Launch the software, connect to the Internet and decide who else you want to invite into your Groove group. (The other members also have to have Groove.) Invite members to join you by e-mail, instant message or voice message, all delivered through Groove.
Your group can instantly begin working together. Anything one user does will be seen by all the others. You can, for instance, work on a document together in one window while using another as a whiteboard, and at the same time send messages or talk via voice over Groove.
Other software can be attached to Groove and worked on jointly. Groove coordinates the activity, making sure everyone sees the latest changes. It works whether all the members of the group are online at the same time, or if they come on and off-line at different times.
Once a group is established, Groove uses the Net to connect the members' computers directly to each other, called peer-to-peer. The data and communication don't go through a central server, which is different from Notes or other collaborative systems.
Groove could be used by consumers as a multimedia version of instant messaging. Users could be in touch with friends or family while at the same time sharing music, photos, games or entire Web sites.
Businesses can use Groove to let groups of people both inside and outside the company collaborate and share information. It could also be used to serve customers. A financial services company might offer customers a version of Groove that gives them access to their personal account information, financial news and analyst reports, plus instant access to brokers or customer-service reps.