What’s A Workgroup?

How groupware gave us the first glimmers of what collaboration could be like in the online era, then became so pervasive that we don’t even think about it anymore.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Networking has played an important role in computing history. We want to collaborate without having to share floppy disks or be over one another’s shoulders all day. The internet largely resolved this problem—and the pandemic made it much less likely random people would get in your personal space—but there was a “mushy middle” issue that needed to be solved in the days before the internet was a thing. How can everyone actually work together on these personal computers without a mainframe? The answer was groupware, an early term for collaborative software designed to work across multiple computers in a network. At first, those multiple computers were located in the same office. Then, the canvas expanded from there, but in the midst of that, we got Microsoft’s first true attempt to embrace networking. Today’s Tedium talks about groupware, workgroups, and the strangest release of Windows this side of Me. — Ernie @ Tedium


Want a byte-sized version of Hacker News? Try TLDR’s free daily newsletter.

TLDR covers the most interesting tech, science, and coding news in just 5 minutes.

No sports, politics, or weather.

Subscribe for free!


The acronym for the concept of networking, also known as oN-Line System, forged by the Stanford Research Institute by a Douglas Englebart-led team in the 1960s, and presented during the Mother of All Demos, a 1968 presentation, led by Englebart, that represented a coming-out party for many computing innovations that would eventually become commonplace. On top of obvious innovations like the mouse, the NLS approach highlighted numerous aspects that would become essential to groupware, including videoconferencing, the client-server architecture, and version control. If you have 90 minutes and want to see something 20-plus years ahead of its time, watch this video.


(Die Medienzeitmaschine/Flickr)

How the PC made us forget about collaboration for a while

Imagine you run a large company, and you’ve invested a lot of money into personal computers that your employees are now using—IBM PCs, Apple Macintoshes, clones, and the like. There’s just one problem: You have a bunch of computers, but they don’t necessarily talk to one another.

I mean, it’s right in the name, after all: Personal computers.

In the mainframe era, it was understood that machines were so complex and expensive that their resources needed to be spread among many people. But when computers were self-contained on a desk, that replicated a new kind of problem.

Think about this in terms of large companies vs. small: If you run a small office and need to share a file, that’s one thing. You can just hand a disk off to someone on the other side of the room. But what if you’re an enterprise company, and the person you need to collaborate with is on the other side of the country? That doesn’t work anymore. That means you’re still stuck with mainframes, fax machines, and TPS reports.

Technologies, simply put, needed to be more collaborative, so they could take input from a large group of people inside an office, so files could be shared and distributed, and information could be tweaked and mashed into its final form, with everyone getting sign-off.

Early on, there was an understanding that collaborative working styles would become increasingly necessary over time, with no less an authority than Douglas “The Mother of All Demos” Engelbart making some of the earliest high-profile efforts on this front. In the late 1980s, at a point when the PC had begun to dominate the workplace, Engelbart was less than impressed with what was lost in the process. As he wrote (with Harvey Lehtman) in Byte in 1988:

The emergence of the personal computer as a major presence in the 1970s and 1980s led to tremendous increases in personal productivity and creativity. It also caused setbacks in the development of tools aimed at increasing organizational effectiveness—tools developed on the older time-sharing systems.

To some extent, the personal computer was a reaction to the overloaded and frustrating time-sharing systems of the day. In emphasizing the power of the individual, the personal computer revolution turned its back on those tools that led to the empowering of both co-located and distributed work groups collaborating simultaneously and over time on common knowledge work.

The introduction of local- and wide-area networks into the personal computer environment and the development of mail systems are leading toward some of the directions explored on the earlier systems. However, some of the experiences of those earlier pioneering systems should be considered anew in evolving newer collaborative environments.

Essentially, the PC right-sized the computer for the individual at the cost of the organization, which had advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest advantages is that the interface was streamlined, so it made more sense for the end user and was better tailored to their needs. But on the other hand, it made little room for the team.

I understand why Engelbart felt the need to speak up when he did. He had developed some of the earliest examples of collaborative software, known early on as “computer-supported cooperative work” (the starting point for an acronym only PCMCIA fans could love), only to see the lessons lost when we effectively rebuilt the computer industry from scratch, so our machines were smaller than bread boxes.

Eventually, Engelbart became known as the “father of groupware,” and thank heavens, too—groupware is a much nicer term for what collaborative software does, even if academics hold more love for computer-supported cooperative work.

Groupware was starting to finally catch on in the late 1980s, with companies—taken in by the idea of “orchestrating work teams,” as an Infoworld piece put it in 1988—putting a lot of resources against this trend.

It was also a great way for independent software companies to stand out, as it was an area that large companies had basically ignored—in particular, Microsoft. The company, which was beginning to shape productivity software and operating systems, is known today as the 800-pound gorilla of collaboration thanks to its combination of Teams and Office 365. But it took them a while to get there.

And a big part of the reason for that comes down to the tentative steps the company took on the networking front. Put simply, Microsoft was late to the collaboration game because it was late to the networking game. And one company in particular was well-positioned to take advantage of the opening.


The year Lotus Development Corporation released the initial version of its Lotus Notes software, later sold under the name IBM Notes. Notes was built with a client-server setup, and relied on the Domino server package. While Lotus was long best known for its Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, considered one of the first killer applications, it is ultimately Notes that came to define the company, and the application that led to IBM buying Lotus in 1995 in a deal that, at the time, was the largest of its kind. (Likewise, when Novell bought the similarly positioned WordPerfect in 1994, their collaboration suite, Groupwise, was the only part they ultimately kept when they sold it in 1996.) While the software has faded from view, it is surprisingly active to this day, with the product sold by HCLSoftware under the name HCL Domino in 2024.

Notes30 01

What Lotus Notes looked like upon its initial release. (via Mat Newman)

The company that caught the groupware wave at just the right time

Lotus did not invent the groupware concept—on top of Engelbart’s formative work at Stanford, the term had been around since at least 1980, per Infoworld—but it was the company that made it worth everyone’s attention.

And the person perhaps most associated with that development was Ray Ozzie. Ozzie, who was recruited to work at Lotus after spending time working on the early spreadsheet VisiCalc, essentially built out what became Notes while working at Iris Associates, a direct offshoot of Lotus formed to develop the Notes application.

Iris, essentially a skunkworks operation funded by Lotus in its early years, developed Notes in stealth mode. The product came to life fully formed in 1989.

Ozzie, a graduate of the University of Illinois, was directly inspired by the PLATO system, an early local network system at the university that pioneered many early collaboration technologies and was often considered one of the first internet-like networks. As he explained to Y Combinator co-founder Jessica Livingston in her book Founders At Work, Notes represented his vision for the “market roadmap as to where things are headed” in the mid-1980s:

In Notes, it was (and this is hard to imagine because it was a different time) the concept that we’d all be using computers on our desktops, and therefore we might want to use them as communication tools. This was a time when PCs were just emerging as spreadsheet tools and word processing replacements, still available only on a subset of desks, and definitely no networks. It was ’82 when I wrote the specs for it. It had been based on a system called PLATO that I’d been exposed to at college, which was a large-scale interactive system that people did learning and interactive gaming on, and things like that. It gave us a little bit of a peek at the future—what it would be like if we all had access to interactive systems and technology.

The idea of building an application based on PLATO turned out to be the right idea at the right time, because it gave Lotus an edge in the market by the time of Notes’ 1989 release.

The application, as highlighted in a demo on the Computer Chronicles in the fall of 1989, included an obvious example of collaborative software in the form of email, but as Lotus Notes General Manager Brownell Chalstrom noted, “It’s really a document distribution and management system.”

As an all-in-one platform built for scale, Notes gained a strong reputation as an early example of what today would be called a “business transformation” tool, a tool that managed many elements of collaboration. It was also complicated and required a significant investment to maintain, which means it was built for scale. In a way, what Notes did that was perhaps most groundbreaking from a computing standpoint was that it helped turn PCs into an enterprise play just as prominent as it was during the mainframe era.

As Fortune noted in 1994, the company had a massive lead in the groupware space, in part because the software worked essentially the same anywhere in the network, a concept we take for granted now, but back then was considered magical:

Like Lotus 1-2-3, Notes is easy to customize. A sales organization, for instance, might use it to set up an electronic bulletin board that lets people pool information about prospective clients. If some of the info is confidential, it can be restricted so not everyone can call it up.

Notes makes such homegrown applications and the data they contain accessible throughout an organization. The electronic bulletin board you consult in Singapore is identical to the one your counterparts see in Sioux City, Iowa. The key to this universality is a procedure called replication, by which Notes copies information from computer to computer throughout the network. You might say Ozzie figured out how to make the machines telepathic—each knows what the others are thinking.

This hidden feature is the one that has most bedeviled programmers at Microsoft and other companies as they’ve sought to imitate Notes.

The article reported that around 4,000 major companies had purchased Notes. While it wasn’t dominant in the way Windows was, its momentum was hard to ignore.

A commerical for Notes, dating to 1996, highlighting its collaboration with FedEx. Other commercials would use Denis Leary or be highly conceptual, rarely, if ever, showing the software.

“The list of big Notes customers reads like a who’s who of corporate America: Chase Manhattan, Compaq Computer, Delta Air Lines, Fluor, General Motors, Harley Davidson, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, J.P. Morgan, Nynex, Sybase, and 3M, just to name a few,” the article stated.

(At least some of those companies are still relevant and active under those names. Maybe Notes helped.)

The most important company on that list turned out to be IBM, which ended up buying Lotus just a year after that Fortune piece, almost entirely to get a hold of Notes. (Lotus was ready to sell. The switch to Windows decimated sales of its desktop software lineup.) While IBM eventually outgrew Notes as companies like Microsoft and Google effectively supplanted the product, it proved the bridge between the company IBM was before the rise of the personal computer and the one it became after.

It was common to read stories about how Notes reshaped businesses large and small. A 1996 Inc. piece, for example, highlighted how a natural foods company successfully produced a new product in just eight months, a feat the company directly credited to Notes.

“It’s become our general manager,” Groveland Trading Co. President Steve McDonnell recalled.

Notes wasn’t cheap, and it was a complicated tool to manage. But results like that were immensely hard to ignore. Even Microsoft eventually noticed—and they wanted in.

“Some technologies do not depend upon widespread acceptance for their value. A wonderful nonstick frying pan is useful even if you’re the only person who ever buys one. But for communications and other products that involve collaboration, much of the product’s value comes from its widespread deployment. Given a choice between a beautiful, handcrafted mailbox with an opening that would accommodate only one size envelope, and an old carton that everyone routinely dropped all mail and messages for you into, you’d choose the one with broader access. You would choose compatibility.”

— Bill Gates, writing in his book The Road Ahead about how compatibility, particularly in collaborative settings, shapes computing. The book highlighted how Gates was seen as an innovator on all things tech, despite the fact that, well, on the collaboration trend and the internet trend, Microsoft was a bit late.

5574403868 d7ca0d747e c

Were you a Workgroups fanatic back in the day? (Daltrois/Flickr)

Windows for Workgroups didn’t beat groupware, but became the engine on which the future of Windows was built

Microsoft had high hopes for Windows for Workgroups, the networking-focused variant of its popular Windows 3.1 software suite. The company pulled out all the stops. Seriously.

In the fall of 1992, Microsoft paid something like $2 million to put on a Broadway production with Bill Gates at the center, at New York’s Gershwin Theater. It sounds like a wild event, and yet, somehow, there is no video of this event currently online, despite some photos existing to show it happened.

Screenshot from 2024 04 06 08 16 44

There should be video of this. (via Infoworld)

A 1992 Washington Post article describes the nature of the event: Put on at New York’s Gershwin Theater, the $2 million performance required the use of dozens of actors, some of whom were dressed like the Blues Brothers, and some cheesy set pieces. At one point, Gates did jumping jacks.

There may be a reason video doesn’t exist of it online—apparently everyone agrees it was bad! Gates himself later said, “That was so bad, I thought Ballmer was going to retch.”

(The only person I know of who has a copy of this video, no longer online, is fittingly enough Ray Ozzie, the groupware guru and Notes inventor who later served as a top executive at Microsoft, famously replacing Bill Gates as Chief Software Architect in the mid-2000s. I reached out to him for this piece, but didn’t hear back from him. Hopefully he likes it enough that he decides to grace us with Gates on Broadway.)

No two ways about it, despite this attempt at fanfare, Windows for Workgroups was not a hit. While Windows 3.1 was dominant, Microsoft had built a program that didn’t seem to capture the burgeoning interest in collaborative work in a real way. Among other things, it didn’t initially support TCP/IP, despite the fact that it was the networking technology that was winning the market and enabled the rise of the internet, an emerging technology at the time.

In its original version, it carried such a negative reputation in Microsoft’s own headquarters that the company nicknamed it Windows for Warehouses, hinting at the company’s largely unsold inventory, according to the company’s own lore expert, Raymond Chen.

But in a way, the fact that it existed in the first place hinted at Microsoft’s general acknowledgement that perhaps this networking thing was going to catch on with its users.

Launched in late 1992, a few months after Windows 3.1 itself, the product was Microsoft’s first attempt at integrated networking in a Windows package. The software enabled file-sharing across servers, printer sharing, and email—table stakes in the modern day, but at the time a big deal.

A very accurate view of what it was like to use Windows in 1994.

Unfortunately, it was a big deal that came a few years late. The concept was considered so lukewarm on Microsoft’s part that the company had to update it to Windows for Workgroups 3.11, whose marquee feature wasn’t network support, but increased disk speed. Confusingly, the company had just released Windows NT by this point, a program that better matched the needs of the enterprise.

Microsoft Office saw success against WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. But the team in Redmond initially let the groupware trend pass them by. Notes and other groupware tools had all the energy from the actual get-work-done standpoint, and Microsoft would have to develop other approaches to collaboration, such as Microsoft Exchange, to fill the gap. That tool, released in 1996, was referred to as Microsoft’s “Notes-buster” in Fortune’s 1994 feature on Lotus Notes. While it didn’t capture the hearts of the business world quite like Notes, it’s hard to ignore Exchange’s eventual dominance.

The workgroup terminology Microsoft introduced with Windows for Workgroups stuck around, and is actually used throughout Windows to this day. That said, the meaning hits like a bad memory at this point. Microsoft eventually won, but it took them a few tries.

It’s weird how much we take collaboration for granted now. Google Docs, Teams, Slack? Again, table stakes.

But thinking broadly, the concepts that Notes and other groupware tools forged ended up shaping lots of tools we use to function. For example, one can see the single-source-of-truth approach to Notes in tools that look nothing like it—for example, anything based on git. Applications like Figma have roots in creative software, but also in groupware. Traditional software, like Photoshop and Microsoft Office, now have groupware elements tacked on, and have for years. And cloud applications, in many cases, are basically groupware without the on-site server or the expensive IT team orchestrating the workplace musical.

Now, sure, we can see groupware’s beating heart in more traditional senses. Salesforce wouldn’t exist, for example, without Notes. And enterprise applications as big as Notes, if not bigger, dominate that market.

But the toolkit also became absolutely pervasive in every part of computing life, thanks to the internet. In just a few years, networking went from a nice to have, to an expectation. And not just among businesses—but everyone. I think we can credit the trickle-down of innovation for that.

In 2024, group-oriented software feels like the default, and single-user apps the anomaly. Over time, groupware became so common, so pervasive, that we no longer think of it as groupware. Now, it’s just software. Groupware got us through the pandemic, even if we never used the word “groupware” to describe it once.

Groupware did its job so well that it’s everywhere—and we don’t even think about it anymore.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And if you’re looking for a tech-news roundup, TLDR is a great choice. Give ’em a look!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter