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File-Sharing An Out-of-Office Experience

That's how John Heveron, a certified public accountant in Rochester, N.Y., uses Virtual Office -- holding telephone conference calls while eyeballing shared documents with eight to 10 other accountants in different cities who belong to the same trade association.

"With Groove we have taken our conference calls to a new level," he said. "In one phone conference, we took a best-of-everybody proposal and put together a really superior document that was based on all of the documents people shared."

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Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group consultancy, said a transformation is underway as corporate software vendors embed such online communication capabilities -- calling a meeting by Internet telephone, say, or sending an instant message to a colleague in India after noticing she just signed on -- into nitty-gritty menus of word processors, spreadsheets and e-mail programs.

Microsoft, for example, has been touting its forthcoming Office Communicator 2005, which integrates instant messaging with Internet phone calling, document sharing and e-mail. But unlike Groove, Office Communicator doesn't let people work offline or create ad hoc groups using computers that connect directly and bypass expensive central computers.

O'Kelly predicts more Groove-like features will soon show up in corporate software. For now, though, they are increasingly available from smaller vendors such as Socialtext Inc., which sells a Web-hosted service allowing companies or groups to jointly edit Web pages that can be password-protected. Lots of free software also is available online to help people create public or private wikis, Web pages that allow anyone to edit anyone else's work.

Wikis are the technology used by Wondir Inc., a small Web search firm in Bethesda, to track priorities for its eight full-time employees, some of whom live in Seattle, New York and Charlottesville. But when it comes to virtual meetings, "we just use the telephone," said Wondir chief executive Matthew Koll.

But that is changing, Ozzie said, as Internet calling services blur the line between computers and telephones. "We are at the very beginning of who knows how many years of exploration of how we best communicate with one another," Ozzie said. "The concept of what is a phone call is going to change."

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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