Dino Veizis and his production team share many electronic files as they put together storyboards, soundtracks and video footage for training videos and commercials. Their Rockville firm, Video on Location Inc., has only 15 employees and taps an outside technology contractor in Gaithersburg to help produce the videos for large corporations.
To give everyone simultaneous access to shared files such as animations and graphics, and to show what has been done to each along with the work remaining, Video on Location uses a software program called Virtual Office. It combines all sorts of applications -- voice conferencing, instant messaging, text chat, e-mail, calendars, project timelines, photo sharing -- into one shared view of related files, while encrypting everything to keep it private.
"It lets us do so much more with fewer people," said Veizis, the company's president.
You may have never heard of Virtual Office, but you could be using its features one day. Microsoft Corp. announced earlier this month that it is buying the software's maker, Groove Inc., for an undisclosed sum, with plans to fold the product's capabilities into Microsoft's Office suite and the Windows operating system.
In addition to Virtual Office, other Web-friendly programs have been popping up to help people work together online, including a flavor of group blog known as a wiki. All these products are speeding changes in the workplace, allowing people to work with others in far-flung locations and fueling the trend toward corporate outsourcing.
Groove, founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie, has been at the forefront of interest in so-called collaboration software, a buzz phrase that lost its luster in the 1990s after the products failed to deliver on lofty promises of boosting individual productivity. The early products were hard to learn and could be accessed only from within tightly controlled corporate networks.
But since access to the Web has become ubiquitous both at work and home, big software vendors increasingly have been remaking their products to exploit the Web -- and to reflect the reality that people are spending huge chunks of their waking moments online, typically communicating with others.
Ozzie, who released the first version of Groove's software in the fall of 2000, was early in grasping how radically the Internet would change workplaces, breaking down traditional corporate and geographic boundaries. Believing business software needed a radical redesign, he wrote a decentralized program that differs from those sold by Microsoft, International Business Machines Corp. and Oracle Corp. in that it allows users' computers to contact each other directly, rather than through a central machine. That's also how controversial peer-to-peer file-sharing systems work, only Groove adds file encryption and lets people work on files offline, too, synchronizing their data when they go back online.
"Our customers tell us the way they picture it in their mind is that they no longer have a physical office as much as an office that is on their personal computer," Ozzie said in an interview. "It holds all the documents that they would have put in file cabinets in past years. Now they are meeting with people online in ways they would have sat in the office before. More and more, people are thinking about how they need to bring people and information together online."
Groove gives users a private screen where they can view information by themselves or in real time with other members of ad hoc groups they create. Group members can call up shared applications -- a calendar, say, that anyone can add or delete events from, or a sketchpad on which anyone can doodle. Users also can chat over the Internet or pick up the regular phone and talk to one another while looking at the same items on their computer screens.