Harvard professor Andrew McAfee (left) is credited with coining the phrase “Enterprise 2.0” — which is basically Web 2.0 for businesses — but in his keynote on Tuesday morning at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, he portrayed himself as a former skeptic of the business value of Web 2.0 who has now become a believer. “The past year has been an amazing journey for me,” McAfee said.

He previously viewed blogs as a medium for teenagers to journal about meaningless ramblings. Now, he relies on blogs on a daily basis. “I think the blogosphere is my single most valuable source of information… I’m amazed at the non-patheticness [of it],” he quipped.

McAfee asserted that many of the tools in the Enterprise 2.0 toolbox are aimed at replacing e-mail but noted that it will be difficult to unseat e-mail in many organizations because it is so ingrained. “We tend to overweight the value of our incumbent technologies,” he said.

The core of Enterprise 2.0

I don’t believe that the collaboration tools of Enterprise 2.0 are about replacing e-mail as much as they are about allowing e-mail to simply be a messaging platform and not a collaboration platform. Right now in most organizations, e-mail is the primary means for sharing and collaborating on files and doing group-think for geographically dispersed groups. However, e-mail was never designed for those functions and is not very good at them.

Enterprise 2.0 tools are about making collaboration more efficient and effective by providing better ways for groups (either standard teams or groups gathered for a short-term project) to share and edit files in real time with full version tracking and easier replication/transfer. Plus, the groups need communication tools like IM, forums, comments, Wikis, shared whiteboards, and/or VoIP to collaborate because e-mail quickly becomes cluttered and difficult to track when multiple people jump into a thread.

The next great battleground

Both startups and established tech companies have realized the potential for improving productivity with Enterprise 2.0 tools, so there’s an all-out race to create a great collaboration platform that will gain critical mass. The race itself was the major undercurrent of the Enterprise 2.0 Conference.

Every company is taking a slightly different approach to building a collaboration platform, often based on their strengths with previous products. Some are approaching it from the angle of an intranet portal, while others try to do it with an SaaS (Software as a service) platform that they host. Still others are doing it with a distributed approach using fat client P2P-based software.

Microsoft has a head start with two different approaches: SharePoint (portal) and Groove (fat client). IBM is using WebSphere to make its collaboration play and is also developing middleware for mashups to help fuel other platforms. However, the most interesting work is coming from the startups.

Zoho has built best-of-breed online office apps and threaded in collaboration features from the ground up. ThinkFree (right) has reverse-engineered Microsoft Office file formats and done a better job than Microsoft of creating a business-ready portal for collaborating on them. Collanos has built a peer-to-peer collaboration workspace that is probably easier to use than any of the other platforms.

So who will win? I have no idea, although I like the chances of Microsoft and Zoho. This is turning into one of the next great battlegrounds in computing, and the result will likely be collaborative work tools that are much more effective than e-mail.