The Web Leaves Information In Its Place
Posted by Bob Warfield on November 10, 2007
What is the web? How has it changed how we think about computing?
I’ve been thinking about a crazy change of perspective. I wonder if the web isn’t about moving people to information instead of information to people?
Compare and contrast the destkop with the web. On the desktop, we are obsessed with where the information is. It consists of files that live in folders. Conventional desktop thinking does collaboration by shipping this information around. Originally the shipping was even done via physical media: floppy discs and lately CD’s, DVD’s, or USB keys. Eventually, we started shipping it via email.
Now take a look at the web and collaboration there. Is it easier to ship documents around with email, or to build a collaborative wiki? I think it’s easier to build a collaborative Wiki. Why? Because we leave the information in its place and work on it in situ. Shipping information around is problematic for collaboration because the information is changing. You have to keep shipping updates and you might miss one. Or, you might mistake an old copy as being the latest and greatest. We’ve all had this happen.
Despite the availability of a lot of useful tools like wikis, web collaboration is still in its infancy. We’re still very much in a position of saying we have achieved collaboration merely because we’re running a web app. It’s a great first step, but it needs to go further to enhance the potential of the collaborative medium. How does using a web-based word processor enhance your collaboration versus using your desktop word processor? So far, it means everyone can access a link to the same data without passing copies around. That’s a big step, but there’s a lot more possibility there to finish the job. Let’s stick with the document for a moment so I can illustrate.
We need to be able to weave the collaborative conversation throughout the document in several ways. First, we should be able to comment at will. Pick your favorite UI metaphor of sticky notes or change/revision highlighting, or whatever, but it must be possible to hold a conversation about the document, outside the document (meaning you can view the document without these conversations), but still in the context of the document so comments are next to what’s being commented on.
Next, we need to be able to make changes and have everyone see who is changing what. So far MS Word’s change/revision markup seems to be the best example, and it isn’t even in a collaborative web product!
Lastly, we need to be able to divide and conquer. I’ve always like Excel’s notebook tabs (well to be fair, I invented them, LOL) for this. What if tabs could be assigned out to contributors? I once told the Microsoft people they needed tabs in MS Word, but they wouldn’t listen. Wikis can do the same by giving ownership of pages. Again, choose your favorite UI metaphor, but make it possible to divide ownership.
Put those three together and you have a big step up on collaboration. The next logical step would be workflows to ensure people are collaborating in structured ways where appropriate. Putting the data in the cloud makes all of this easier and more natural, but we have a long way to go before we have all these capabilities in a reasonable suite of content creation tools like word processors and spreadsheets. It’s about time we pick up the pace and get there already. Past time really.
What else do we get from not having to ship information? Quite a lot, actually. Two biggies are machine independence and the ability for others to help us take care of our information.
Machine independence means you can access your information from any machine because the information is in the cloud, not on your machine. Given the proliferation of devices (most business people seem to have a work machine, a home machine, and a smart phone, for example), this is important. To paraphrase Buckaroo Bonzai, “Wherever you go, there you information is.”
What about this last idea that people can help us take care of our information? This is the essence of SaaS. It can be simple things like making sure the information is backed up to a redundant store in multiple physical locations. Another immediate benefit is someone else keeps your software running smoothly with all the right updates and security patches. You don’t even need to install anything–just logon with your web browser. There are a lot of other ways value can be added, let’s touch on a few. The service can help link you up with others who are working on similar information or who appear to have similar interests. Communities develop this way and it’s very helpful. Your desktop need no longer be an island. Search becomes more powerful. Despite repeated attempts, I’ve yet to see a desktop search experience that works as well as what I routinely have on the web.
The list goes on, but you begin to see how moving your information to the cloud truly creates a lot of powerful opportunities to add value. Equally obvious is we’ve hardly begun to deliver on the full vision.