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3/25/2005
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New Directions in Context-Based Collaboration

You wouldn't think of a PDF document or an Excel worksheet as a collaborative tool. But thanks to Adobe and Advanced Reality, both of these applications are. In a recent meeting at Adobe, Jonathan Knowles of the company's Intelligent Documents Division explained the company's strategy. In this article we first examine how Adobe is tackling the collaborative needs of customers via Acrobat, intelligent documents, and document services. Then we turn our focus on Advanced Reality, talking to CEO Brian Hoogendam about his company's JYBE web browser plug-in that supports co-browsing, chat, and remote PC operation.

You would not think of a PDF document or an Excel worksheet as collaborative tools. But thanks to Adobe and Advanced Reality, both of these applications are.

In a recent meeting at Adobe, we were briefed by Jonathan Knowles, Technology Strategist for the Intelligent Documents Division at Adobe. Intelligent documents is the division that acquired Accelio (formerly Jetform) a few years ago and now have re-written and integrated that workflow technology into the new version of Acrobat 7.0.

Collaboration at Adobe falls into three categories:

  • Universal Client
  • Intelligent Documents
  • Document Services
  • PDF is really a presentation component and a document container, but Adobe has expanded its capabilities to now store business logic, forms, calculations, variables, security checks, and XML transport schemas. As part of the new release of Acrobat, Adobe Form Designer (a drag and drop) forms tool was included, and enables end-user creation of XML forms, for a variety of workflow types.

    Adobe claims to have 1/2 billion copies of the Adobe reader in use. The company also has expanded PDF to work offline, and to deal with both connected and transactional relationships. This also means that they can work outside the firewall, or even if the computer the PDF document is on is not connected.

    Most of collaboration for Adobe is around review, markup and approval, and has a lot to do with workflows for these processes. Adobe has also created a "Policy Server" to organize and control a document through it's whole life cycle, and includes functions around encryption, access, audit,etc. PDF can even include intelligent 2D barcodes (you mostly see this when you print out your boarding pass for an airplane).

    Adobe considers PDF a de-facto standard, but nevertheless they are on ISO committees to create new standards in this area. PDF/E (for exchange) is a standard that is emerging and should be ratified by next year, which looks at document exchange, review, markup, and approval for CAD documents. Since Jonathan came from Autodesk, it was not a surprise to see that Adobe has an interest in the AEC market and is making PDF more able to deal with AEC content types.

    What is nice about these PDF documents is that you can make almost any kind of document into a PDF. Adobe showed us a CAD diagram drawn in AutoCAD, where a user that did not have AutoCAD could review and make changes to the document without having the AutoCAD application. The ability of a PDF document to support this has some far reaching implications, besides everyone having to have a version of the application to deal with application content. In addition the PDF container, as an intelligent container it provides support for policies, security, page numbering (you can have a variety of different document formats in one PDF document), headers and footers, etc. for that document, no matter what is in it.

    Adobe even claims that it can enforce security on a PDF document, even when the document is on a computer that is not connected. This seems a bit magical to me, but I don't believe Adobe would claim this if it could not do it.

    Collaborative Documents

    Since PDF is an intelligent container that is focused on the display and printing of documents, and Adobe seems to be moving in the direction of collaboration through some of these acquisitions (Accelio, and more recently OKYZ's 3D collaboration technology), it was not a great leap for us to ask when Adobe was going to have a blogging tool. The question kind of surprise them, but we could see that it is a logical direction for them to move in, and although we did not get a definitive answer, I believe that Adobe will announce a blogging tool, or PDF blogging functionality, sometime in calendar 2005 or early 2006.

    With that question out of the way, I took things to the next step and asked when they would support web conferencing. (Which to me is a logical extension of the current way they use PDF to display a document -- why not enable it to display the document at the same time to several people in different locations?) Again, a look of surprise, and no real confirmation of that direction, but if I were Adobe, I would seriously be looking in that direction! Our expectation is that in early-to-mid 2006 there will be an Adobe product that supports real-time group document editing, annotation, markup, etc., and that it will probably be linked to their current workflow and forms technology.

    Application-Based Collaboration

    We also were briefed recently by Brian Hoogendam, the CEO at Advanced Reality, a venture-backed collaboration start-up in Texas. Advanced Reality is a company we had talked to before, when they had release their Excel product, which allowed people to collaborate through Excel, and if you were working on a budget with someone, this was a great solution. Advance Reality also has tools that allow you to share and collaborate through other Microsoft products: Share Point and PowerPoint.

    Advanced Reality has come up with another tool to use in collaboration: the browser. Now this might not seem like much, but their JYBE plug-in for IE or even FireFox browsers allows co-browsing, chat, and the ability to do "remote control" (if given permission) on another PC. The beauty of the Advance Reality tools is that there is no training, because you are already using an application you know. Their philosophy is that collaboration should occur in the context of what you are working on and in the applications you work with. We at CS agree with that statement and take it a step further to say that collaboration should occur within the process your working in and should include any applications that you work on within the process.

    In any case, with pop-up blockers disabled we were able to install a simple toolbar and I and two other CS analysts were able to use JYBE to view a variety of different web pages, including the Collaborate.com site. Although we often use Glance internally to share documents in real-time, JYBE is a bit different from Glance, in that Glance is a screen sharing tool, and sometimes it is a bit slow in painting my screen on the other person's PC. This is not true with JYBE, and everyone's screen was instantly available. Although JYBE is not a web conferencing tool like WebEx or Raindance, it can be used for free web conferencing, or as we like to call it an "e-meeting."

    E-Meetings On the Web

    An e-meeting, as we define it, involves a small number of people (2-6) and is secure and highly interactive. JYBE supports all of these e-meeting characteristics. While I would use JYBE for an e-meeting, I probably would not for an e-Presentation (more of a one to many paradigm, with much less interaction and security). JYBE is free, and the beta version is available for download at www.jybe.com. It is available as a service or can be bought by an enterprise, and in this configuration works with LDAP and Active Directory.

    In addition, JYBE allows more than application viewing (like Glance) but allows application sharing if the applications are web (browser) based. Because it supports a hybrid architecture (both P2P and client/server), it could be used for live help responses for a help desk, or live blogging, and has the ability to extend presence awareness, so that you can ask someone to join you in an e-meeting or collaboration.

    Summary

    Both Adobe and Advanced Reality are reacting to the need of users to have collaborative tools that support interactions within a specific context or process. Adobe is taking one approach, Advanced Reality another, but both approaches support collaboration through an application, usually eliminating training time, and ensuring a common context for the interaction. We expect to see this type of application-based collaboration from Microsoft also, as the company moves more and more to embed collaboration functionality into its rich "Office" applications. We expect to see this later this year in Office 12. Although it will be implemented somewhat differently from Advanced Reality, it will certainly give them a run for their money.

    David Coleman is the Founder and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies CS). He is the author of two books on groupware, and is the editor and writes the “Guru's Corner” column for this newsletter. He can be reached at davidc@collaborate.com or 415-282-9197.

      

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