Almost every day of my working life brings a fresh demonstration of the power and utility of Usenet-style conferencing. Here’s a typical example. While logged in to a client’s Solaris box, I triggered this unfamiliar error message: “IO object version 1.20 does not match $1.15.” What that meant, in general, was that something was wrong with a Perl module that I needed for an application I was building. What it meant specifically was a puzzle. I’m no Solaris expert, and Perl wasn’t exhibiting this behavior on my own NT and Linux boxes. I faced the usual choices: fix the problem, or work around it. But which? And in either case, how?
For the last few years, the planetary knowledge base known as the Usenet has been my first line of defense in these situations. Sure enough, plugging the error message into the Deja.com search engine immediately yielded a posting rich with vital clues:
A Canadian developer named Oleg had run into the same problem.
Oleg’s problem was also on a Solaris system.
Oleg was using the same slightly outdated version of Perl that my client’s system had.
Nobody ever answered Oleg’s plea for help. It’s tempting to regard his solitary Usenet posting as a futile act of communication. In fact, it was extremely helpful to me (and possibly to others as well). Oleg’s message enabled me to:
Confirm that the problem wasn’t specific to my client’s system
Strengthen a hypothesis that a Perl upgrade might fix the problem
Contact Oleg by email and suggest the hypothesis to him
Learn that he had already tested and rejected it
Learn that he had contacted the module’s authors and failed to solve the problem
Armed with this knowledge, I was able to spare my client the time and effort required to do an upgrade that wouldn’t have helped me get my job done. I concluded that while the problem was likely fixable (most things are, eventually) the path of least resistance lay in the direction of a workaround. So I used CPAN—the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network—to find another Perl module that did what I needed without nasty side effects on Solaris.
I define groupware in a very general way as any technology that links human minds into collaborative relationships. Since we’ll have to wait a few years for direct mind hookups, current groupware systems rely on the exchange of documents that record what we do and say.
What’s Internet groupware? It arises from three distinct—yet interrelated—modes of document exchange: the Web, email, and Usenet conferencing. The confluence of these modes makes the Internet the mother of all groupware applications. I found Oleg on the Usenet, by way of a browser, and then we communicated using email. During this process an ad hoc group formed, including me and Oleg primarily, but also indirectly some Perl module authors and some of my client’s technical staff. Unbounded by time, geography, or corporate affiliation, this group briefly focused attention on a problem, pooled knowledge about it, then disbanded. This is Internet groupware in action.