Archive for September, 2010

Co-editing and conversation

September 29, 2010

I found out today that Microsoft has finally added live co-editing to Word.  In Word 2010, you can have several people working in the same document simultaneously, seeing each other’s edits live as you go.

On the one hand, this is a useful and interesting feature.  I confess, I’d be more impressed if we hadn’t implemented more or less exactly this functionality at one of my earlier startups (Buzzpad) all the way back in 2002; I’m a little distressed by the fact that it’s taken MS this long to catch on.  But be that as it may, it’s still useful.

That said, I suspect that the process is going to turn out to be a bit weak.  (Caveat: I haven’t played with it yet, so I’m going by what the above post says.)  The reason is that they appear to have failed to think about the conversational nature of the interaction.

The thing is, when three of us are co-editing a document, we’re not doing so in isolation.  The co-editing is, usually, an interactive process, where each of us is reviewing each other’s changes, commenting on and tweaking them, and generally bouncing ideas off each other.  Sure, we can each edit in our own little silos, but that’s nowhere near as interesting and useful as a more interactive experience.

So we need to have a conversation as part of this.  As currently constituted, it looks like we need to do that out-of-band.  Microsoft would probably recommend opening up a Messenger conversation for it, and that works, but it’s not a great solution: it loses the document’s context, and the conversation is not itself preserved with the document, so it’s harder to go back later and reconstruct why you made the decisions you did.  As it stands, I suspect that I’ll wind up horribly abusing Word’s comment features to hold in-line conversations.

Moreover, this doesn’t do enough for the asynchronous side of the conversation.  In practice, we’ll usually be editing this document for a while; when I go away and come back, I want to clearly see the changes.  Moreover, I want to see the conversations that led up to those changes, so I can understand them properly.  You can get a bit of this with some of Word’s other features, but it doesn’t look well-integrated.

My guess is that MS decided to finally implement this capability because Wave scared them, and I have to say that I’m disappointed that they didn’t really learn from Wave: this is a comparatively naive-looking version of co-browsing.  The Wave notion, of a root blip (typically the document you’re co-editing) with deep conversations both embedded inside it and attached as later blips, takes the conversational side of co-editing much more seriously.  And the ability to quickly review all changes — both new conversation and edits to the blips — makes asynchronous conversation work pretty nicely.

So points to MS for trying, but it’s still pretty weak.  I hope they’ll keep evolving it in better directions, but I suspect that’ll only happen if the open-source Wave project continues to give them a good fright.

How about you?  Do you think you’d use Word’s new co-editing capability?  Is there anything that would make it better for you?

Wave isn’t as dead as you might think

September 15, 2010

A month or so ago (while I was off on vacation), Google Wave quite publicly failed.  There was much hubbub about that, including my own analysis of what they did wrong.  What has gotten a lot less press is that this is probably the best thing that could have happened to the project.

A couple of weeks ago, Google announced on the Wave Blog that they would be producing “Wave in a Box”.  Basically, they already had made moves towards an open-source version of the server, the FedOne project; however, FedOne was competing with Google’s own product, so it was always a bit second-class.  Now, they’ll be beefing that project up, adding some of the UI power, as well as key features like gadgets and robots, so that the open-source version is at least roughly comparable with what Google themselves had produced, if not as full-featured.

IMO, this is great news — arguably better than if Google had continued the project themselves.  Wave had a lot of problems, but so long as the main implementation was closed-source and controlled tightly by Google it was subject to everything from staffing limitations to Google’s own biases about how things should work.  Now, the open-source version has the potential to let the proverbial thousand flowers bloom — it allows the open-source community to experiment, and figure out what really works in the wild.

Things I’m personally hoping will eventually evolve out of this:

  • External Identity Integration.  This was the biggest single failing of Google Wave, and the biggest roadblock to adoption.  Put frankly, it sucks to have to come up with a separate “Google identity” to use the system.  The open-source version should move aggressively towards a pluggable identity system, with different modules for different needs.  In the wild, it should allow you to authenticate using OpenID or Facebook Connect.  In a corporate environment, it should allow you to integrate using Active Directory.  (The latter alone has the potential to turn this into a far more useful business tool.)
  • Lighter-weight UI.  Google Wave was a very clever idea, but it got way out of hand in its ambitions.  One of the key impediments to adoption was the incredibly complex, sophisticated, slow, bulky client.  Frankly, everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that much of the weight comes from what have proven to be misfeatures: in particular, the customized scrollbar (which is kind of neat, but not obviously better than the scrollbars that the rest of the world uses) and the as-you-type synchronization (which is mildly useful, but which annoys more users than it helps).  So a UI that loses a few of those flashy features, but which loads and runs faster, would be welcomed by most people.
  • IE Support.  Closely related to the above, really — a lighter client would be less demanding on the browser.  I confess, this matters more to me than to most folks, precisely because I want to use Wave in my business, and the simple reality is that most people here use IE.  I don’t expect IE6 support — but having the thing work with IE8 would be a huge plus, and IE9 is almost a no-brainer, now that Internet Explorer is looking to stop sucking so much.
  • Mobile Support.  With everything centered on Google, this was hard.  But if I can create my own Wave site?  Seriously, the first thing I want is a decent mobile client — light-weight, not as full-featured, but enough to let me participate in the conversation from a small screen.  And in principle, there isn’t much preventing me from doing so.
  • A Real Ecosystem.  Google claimed from the beginning that they were trying to create a whole new platform for Internet communications, but shot themselves in the foot by putting themselves too much at the center of it.  With the playing field leveled, that changes dramatically.  There is now real impetus for consistent standards, and a potentially much bigger and more complex market.

Put it all together, and I’m actually excited again.  There are lots of ways it could screw up, but there’s also a real chance that this could start changing expectations about communication.

What am I missing here?  What should folks be doing with an open-sourced version of Wave?  Do you think it has a chance or not?