Government // Enterprise Architecture
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4/8/2010
04:45 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Down To Business: Google Changes Rules Of Productivity Race

Technology vendors have focused on collaboration as the next productivity revolution. Have they been going about it all wrong?

Since the days of the first electronic spreadsheets and word processors on PCs, the computing industry hasn't produced the equivalent revolution in information worker productivity.

Some will disagree. Internet search engines could be on par but only apply to a segment of information workers. Mobile messaging (à la the first BlackBerry) came close, as did some wireless technologies (Wi-Fi and 3G). Cell phones provided a big productivity boost but they weren't a product of the computing industry.

Knowing the riches that await whoever repeats that nearly 30-year-old productivity revolution, tech companies old and new have been in a race to crack the code on what's universally believed to be the next frontier: collaboration. Along the way, there have been valiant attempts, with neat buzzwords like "groupware" to match. But the collaboration promised land has proved elusive.

Maybe one reason is that they're going about it all wrong. At least this is what Google is suggesting as it announces the newest version of Google Docs.

Ever since the collaboration race began, software providers have clustered around one major productivity bottleneck: how to manage simultaneous and potentially conflicting edits to the same file. Attempts to automate reconciliation of conflicts--where technology resolves what developers call "the diff"--have fallen short. When accuracy matters, there's no substitute for the human eye. But the moment a human must double check any technology's accuracy is when the anti-productivity clock starts to tick. Most document collaboration technologies such as wikis and SharePoint happily oblige a less fallible but slower fallback: a record-locking, database-like approach that prevents simultaneous editing altogether (and any conflicts that might ensue).

For the better part of a decade, we have settled for this mediocrity in document collaboration. In search of a productivity breakthrough, vendors have focused their attention on incremental improvements to usability and conflict resolution, interoperability with existing tools, and the contextual integration of unified communications (text, voice, and video communications) into various shared document contexts.

Google sees these frills as distractions and in this week's announcement hopes to unlevel the playing field by focusing on the one principle that its competitors have overlooked and that could finally crack the uncrackable code: real-time document collaboration.

Video: David Berlind explores new Docs features
More analysis: Of Microsoft's cloud offerings, and other cloud productivity vendors
Research: A report including this analysis and more, along with the complete data set of 14 charts based on our survey of 571 business technology pros
The details are in our article "With Rewrite, Google Docs Takes Microsoft Office Head On," and in more depth in our Special Report: "Desktop Apps: Time For Change", including video demos and exclusive research. But the basic premise is that at any given moment, anyone looking at or editing a Google Apps document (word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation) is seeing not just a perfectly up-to-date version, but the precise locations (aka "presence") and second-by-second edits of the other editors. Google is simply bypassing the need for reconciliation altogether.

Three decades ago, dramatically collapsing the time it took individuals to get to the finish line (the final draft and publication of a nicely formatted document) yielded a revolution in personal productivity. By staying focused on the exact same goal, but applying it to group-produced documents instead, Google raises the question of whether real-time tools can yield a similar revolution. The answer will be measured in something far more tangible than the highly amorphous "collaboration": plain old organizational productivity.

David Berlind is chief content officer of TechWeb and editor in chief of TechWeb.com.

To find out more about David Berlind, please visit his page.

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