Work Processing

Groupware developer

Empowering the group without sacrificing the individual is a lofty idea that some might consider outside the realm of business productivity, but at Sarrus Software, groupware is more than an industry buzzword. "People have asked us to do a spreadsheet or drawing package," says Liz Statmore, vice-president of marketing. "But what makes our products unique is that they focus on work processes."

Since most people's daily work involves a seemingly endless stream of names, dates, phone numbers, addresses, and to-do items, Sarrus decided to offer tools for managing that information as it flows through an organization. But rather than giving users a monolithic application that is expensive to implement and hard to use, Sarrus instead builds its groupware out of discrete building blocks that can be used both together and with other shrinkwrapped or custom apps. "We didn't want to have the kind of rigid rules that you have with something like Lotus Notes," Statmore says.

Following a stint as a software developer for Visix Software, Andy Turk founded Sarrus in 1991, bringing on Howard Burrows (a veteran programmer who had spent time at HP and Software Publishing) and Statmore (fresh from a stint at NeXT). Sarrus's product line currently includes Pencil Me In, a group scheduling application, and SBook, a personal contact-management application. Both products have enough power and intelligence to be used by an entire organization.

Instead of subscribing to a group calendar that is maintained by a system administrator or other centralized authority, Pencil Me In lets individuals share their calendars in such a way that every calendar can become a group calendar.

"We spent a tremendous amount of time testing the product with our initial corporate customers," says Turk. "The result is a very easy-to-use product that people can pick up without reading a manual. Because it's so easy to use, it can spread quickly throughout an entire organization."

Sarrus acquired the SBook contact manager from Simson Garfinkel and Associates in 1992. From within SBook, you can perform a mail merge with WordPerfect or use the Services menu to dial the phone, print an envelope, or send a fax from within any application. Pencil Me In can export its data in a format that is directly compatible with WordPerfect, Athena Design's Mesa, or Stone Design's DataPhile. Sarrus has also developed drag-and-drop links between its two programs.

"One thing you see happen a lot in the Mac and Windows world is the creation of really big, complex applications that attempt to do everything," says Burrows. "We prefer to keep things modular."

Sarrus in January published an API for Pencil Me In that allows the app to be integrated with custom applications on the desktop. "This will give our customers the ability to use either the user interface or the scheduling engine in their custom apps," Burrows says.

"I think that over the next 12 to 18 months you are going to see a lot of developers cooperating on [API development], because we're all realizing that this is one of NEXTSTEP's competitive advantages," says Statmore. "It gives us an advantage over developers that are doing stuff that might be usable under SoftPC. The level of integration that you can get using native applications is far and away superior."

Sarrus has extended its novel programming strategy to its own business model. Instead of relying on venture capital, Turk went right to his potential customers for the company's funding. Swiss Bank Corporation's interest in an early prototype of Pencil Me In allowed him to finish the product and establish the software firm; Sarrus has stuck to a customer-driven model ever since. All of the company's products include a Suggestion panel, and these suggestions often drive product revisions. Pencil Me In's unusual six-week view is one such example, added at the request of an early customer.

"The distinction between custom and shrinkwrapped isn't nearly as important as the distinction between a one-off application and a mass-market one," Turk explains. "If we do enter into an agreement with a large customer, we'll let them give input, but it's very clear that we are still in charge."

Custom apps are important in bringing NEXTSTEP into the enterprise, says Turk, but once it arrives, customers quickly look to the shrinkwrapped market for productivity solutions. With NEXTSTEP, though, customers get an environment in which custom, bundled, and shrinkwrapped apps combine to provide an integrated desktop.

Sarrus has succeeded where other shrinkwrapped developers in the NEXTSTEP market have failed. The key to survival, says Turk, is to provide products that are useful on everyone's desktop. By connecting software modules and people in an organization, Sarrus is fulfilling NEXTSTEP's promise of bringing people together.

by Lee Sherman