The case FOR on-line collaboration

Ross has done an excellent post here on the case against OLC.

So I thought I would do the case FOR  OLC.

Because I use use it all the time, totally.

Oh no hang on, I use email and FTP, because those give us controlled collaboration. Like Ross, and most of the rest of the real world, I have never simultaneously edited a document or spreadsheet with a fellow worker. Nor have I ever felt the need.

When a billion dollar deal gets the nod or not, I want to be sure which version of the deal evaluation tool got used. Wiki stlye free wheeling editing isn’t going to cut it.

Sadly I think this web/browser/cloud crowd have locked onto the wrong metaphor. Collaboration might be what final year students do on their projects. Group think, thought showers are great for managers at all levels, workers, sadly have to be a bit more accountable

In the real world its much more like software development, version control, check in – check out, diffing versions – these things are useful (and missing for spreadsheets).

Some good uses for OLC: things like shared todo lists, bug tracking etc, are more ‘work control’ than actual work artifacts.

Other things like perhaps shared whiteboarding, which I actually think could be pretty handy, are more to do with talking about work/understanding the requirements, than actually doing the work.

In short I think collaboration is great for talking about work, pointless for actually doing it. Of course it is brought to us by a whole class of people who do nothing but talk about work, from chief architecture astronaut down. (Of course when I say ‘talk’ I mean figuratively, leveraging a veritable plethora of pointless browser nonsense in the process). And I’m talking about a whole industry here not any one company.

In fact I think the absolute best use for OLC tools is to discuss, design and specify OLC tools! (And then manage the build process – the actual build will be done by some peope sitting at an editor somewhere)

On-line collaboration – for doing work, or just ‘talking’ about it?



[can we call it meta-work? from a meta-industry?]

20 Responses to “The case FOR on-line collaboration”

  1. Jayson Says:

    I much prefer to do a web conference. This way I can “collaborate” by getting ideas, but fixing them myself. Or I could even hand over controls to another viewer, similar to passing the keyboard if they were physically present.

    I can’t imagine the mess of creating something of any importance simultaneously with someone else.

  2. Simon Says:

    “comparing Google Apps to is like clubbing a staked-out bunny — Google Apps is so far behind that the whole exercise seems like an exercise in pointless cruelty”

  3. Johan Nordberg Says:

    I think it’s really good!

    I don’t know how many times I’ve emailed documents back and forth just to tweak the content or language. I love track changes and the new compare and combine features, but I really would like to see the other editors changes directly.

    It not so much about editing the same document exactly at the same time. It’s more lika typing,talking, making changes, talking, makeing more changes. As I see it it is the real time version of emailing documents or having to check in or check out document all the time.

    Maybe that is “talking” about work, but unless your a complete one man show, people actually do work together on there stuff.

    I also love saving my stuff to the web instead of a local hard drive and constantly having to email myself the document. Now I user Live Mesh to sync my stuff between my computers. Having everything accessable from a browser is great. Sure I could use FTP, but sync and web access is so much easier.

  4. Bert Says:

    I tried Google Docs to write a group project in school a couple years ago. The novelty of OLC wore off pretty quickly, mainly because the performance was too slow and seemed a little flakey at times. We went back to emailing different versions to each other.

    Johan, Live Mesh doesn’t work so well for me. I prefer the automatic versioning feature of Dropbox, anyhow. Dropbox feels more mature than Live Mesh to me.

  5. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    A couple pros :

    – integration with Gmail (and possibly other email services)
    – quick and dirty spreadsheets/docs/presentations
    – no need to sync over files stored on local disks
    – browse from a desktop browser or a mobile browser
    – web aware applications : think sparklines fed from feeds
    – new updates should finally add offline/merging (Google gears) to make it work with intermittent internet connection

    One con :

    – not encrypted. Possible fix : intranet version for wary corporations.

  6. Bob Phillips Says:


    All of those pros sound exactly the sort of things that marketing men will feed, and the sort of things the pyumes (pushy young upwardly mobile executives) will say that they do. But do we really need to browse documents on a mobile, can you really take that info in? If it is a small change, a telephone conversation would work much better (yeah, unbelieveable, people talking!).

  7. Simon Says:

    Bob – phone? PHONE?
    R U MAAD?
    next you’ll be suggesting speaking to fellow humans face to face ;-)

    You make a very good point actually reminding us that informal communication is important. Indeed a classic systems failing is to not take account of the power of informal comms.

    I think those pyumes are too busy making mission critical decisions all day to waste time collaborating with their competitors (for their bosses job).

  8. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    “But do we really need to browse documents on a mobile, can you really take that info in?”

    I don’t know about you, but if I have to provide a good number of figures to someone, I end up sending it by email. With an online spreadsheet, it’s just another consumption.

    In addition to this, the idea that you don’t have to save a piece locally as a file, only to open it in Excel is an improvement. How many gazillions such files do you have on your machine?

    There’s more to it. To me Google maps with the additional layers is the new spreadsheet to me. You can view, drill down, filter etc. Since the interactive experience on a mobile browser is the same these days (iPhone and smart phones) than with a desktop computer, I’m not sure why I should go through all the hassles of the desktop (you have to be somewhere where there is a computer, where the computer is on, …) instead of just picking the phone and do what I have to do.

    Let’s take the work scenario now. Suppose you have to send data to a number of people, and this data gets updated a few times daily. Classically, you would send a spreadsheet to one or more persons, then send it again with the updates and so on, leading to this gigantic mess and a barbaric use of internet bandwidth. Now with the online spreadsheet, you send the url once and the collaboration problem is solved.

  9. Ross Says:

    @ Stephane
    As i said in my post, the location of the data is a side bar, it’s not “better” on a local disk, and it’s not better on a google/ms server, they are different approaches, which will suit different needs.

    Your example (Let’s take the work scenario now..) sounds like a case for on-line storage, not woffice?

    As for mobile phone and office…., you know I can see it now in about 3- years, there will be “productivity experts” telling every one not to send e-mails form ther blackberry’s!

  10. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    “the location of the data is a side bar,”

    If the data you are talking about are silos, but not in the case of web- aware applications (for instance a case where the spreadsheet is a dynamic mix of different stuff, just like web pages are a dynamic mix of different stuff).
    Furthermore, even location is not a side bar when user experience changes. Take for example the era before fast USB drives. Were you happy burning CDs? I know I wasn’t.

    “Your example (Let’s take the work scenario now..) sounds like a case for on-line storage, not woffice? ”

    Ditto. Interesting subject with web-aware applications. I would contend it’s even the opposite in that the Office suite is often irrelevant.

  11. Bob Phillips Says:

    All of the advantages that are being put forward for this ‘new’ technology just sound to me like excuses for working in this totally haphazard way that seems to be rife nowadays, and even perpetuating. It seems to me that this is far better addressed by organizing your day and your workload, planning your work, not having a dozen people updating the same documents, etc. etc.

    The worst work interruptions I have ever experienced are email and the mobile phone. I use both, extensively, but so many people use them unthinkingly, which puts an extra burden on others and creates work. When used sensibly, they are great technologies, when abused they are a nuisance. In my last corporate employment, I was checking my email all of the time, beware anyone who didn’t respond immediately to someone ‘important; now I check it 3 times a day, start, mid and end of day. I rarely use my mobile because I rarely need to. I rarely attend meetings, and when I do they are focussed and not over-subscribed by every Tom, Dick or Harry in every department scared that they might be out in the cold. Now my customers know that when they communicate with me it costs them money, so they plan it out better. Evereyone should do that regardless of whether it is internal or external communications.

  12. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    I hear you, I try to optimize my way too. But I think you are not talking a lot about stuff done in a multi-user environment. I see all the stuff we are talking about as “enabling technology” for the needs of this particular environment. It’s early implementation yet, we haven’t seen what will make it a no-brainer.

  13. Bob Phillips Says:


    I am sure there will be a use, a good use, for this technology. I just think that I haven’t heard it yet, and all of the suggestions that I have heard seem to be me to be justification for not working properly, and it worries me when everyone jumps in with their size 10’s because they are afraid of missing the next big thing. That is not managing your business, it is being driven by fads. The big fear is that it distracts resources from the things that they could be doing that would truly improve the user experience. As an example, IMO most of Excel 2007 was a missed opportunity, the work went into things that were not a business priority, and the things that were needed were largely ignored.

    I would much rather that companies like MS and Google determine a business strategy that makes sense, and drive that through that strategy. Unfortunately, MS have been scared ever since they first ignored the Internet thinking it was irrelevant, then they jumped in in full-panic mode.

  14. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    “That is not managing your business, it is being driven by fads.”

    I happen to disagree on that one. Not only it is a good thing to have (one more example, in another post, I said that online Office makes it possible to share documents as part of a blog post, so anyone can view these without a license of Office and with any web browser), but it also happens that some of the big wings (office suite running on mobile devices) are my customers. One example :

  15. jonpeltier Says:

    Stephane –

    Doesn’t anyone reading these Office-related blogs have an Office license?

  16. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    Pasting an online Office document inside a blog post is like pasting a YouTube video inside a blog post. I’m not sure what’s the relation implied with Office-related blogs. Obviously the target here is everyone, while Office-related blogs is just a microscopic niche of nerds who wouldn’t trade their loved software at whatever cost being offered.

  17. jonpeltier Says:

    I missed your point, which was pasting part of a document into a blog post. I thought you meant sharing standalone Office documents.

    You want to do more than copy and paste text into the blog post? I don’t really understand the utility of this, but perhaps you could explain.

  18. Simon Says:

    I think this stuff has some value for sure. I just think the buzz is way way out of proportion to the value in the foreseeable future.

    And certainly out of all proportion with the lack of buzz around those desktops apps that are currently providing much of the value today.

  19. Stephane Rodriguez Says:


    Single version of the truth. Hard not to understate that one.

    Another, enabling technology. Take polling widgets. Usually you have a basic text form. Now with this, for zero cost, you can have a nice and dynamic graph (viewing) and that lets the user do some (interactive) feature such as filter, sort, drill down, up and through.

    Sharing capabilities. The data can be a mix of sources. Usually with Excel you would need either all external spreadsheets or add-ins fetching data from some location. Here the server-based widget takes that issue away. What this enables is dynamic spreadsheets (think the difference between static HTML and dynamic HTML pushed even beyond that).

    Ubiquity (especially in this troubled XLS versus XLSX file format world).

    I’m sure there’s more, but I’m not a marketing person.

  20. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    Oh, and that one,, is for Jon.

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