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Global CIO: Microsoft, Google Vie Over Real Time Collaboration

Office 2010 and Docs offer different ways for people to work together on a document.

How do your people want to collaborate with each other?

For many companies, this is one of the most important but perplexing questions they're wrestling with today. Microsoft and Google, two of the main vendors of collaboration software, say they have the answer--only they're different answers.

The collaboration question is in the spotlight as Microsoft today rolls out Office 2010, along with SharePoint 2010. It's also at the heart of Google’s thorough rewrite of its Google Docs online productivity suite, unveiled last month.

But let's make this question concrete, by looking at just one new feature in Office 2010 and Google Docs, and the different approaches the two vendors are taking. The feature is co-authoring--where two or more people work in an online document at the same time.

Microsoft thinks people want a level of control and order when working together in a document. When two or more people are working in the same Word document, when one person puts his or her cursor in a paragraph, the other people are locked out and can't see what the person is writing until he or she releases it. "When you really write, you want a peaceful experience," says Chris Capossela, Microsoft senior VP of information worker products. When Microsoft tested a more open experience, where people could see what others are writing in real time, "Word users hated it," Capossela says. However, in the Office OneNote software, which Capossela says is used as more of a research and brainstorming tool, testers were OK with the real-time interaction, so Microsoft doesn't lock paragraphs in that.

Google, in contrast, has embraced this wide-open collaborative experience. In Docs, a person's cursor shows where he or she is working, and the typing shows up in real time. And real time isn't an exaggeration. I've used the new Google Docs online co-authoring--as my colleagues and I worked on our coverage of the new Docs, in fact. Three of us co-edited a few nettlesome paragraphs while also on the phone discussing them. It required some conversation to coordinate our efforts--"let me try something in this paragraph." But that's part of learning new ways to work. We had never done real-time co-editing before and have no norms for that kind of interaction, so there will be a learning curve. (Google makes its own case for Docs over Office 2010 here .)

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I haven't used the new Office 2010 co-authoring, but I talked with IT leaders at Global Crossing, an Office 2010 beta customer. Bob Wicklund, a senior manager and systems engineer who's one of the project leaders, describes co-authoring as part of the "wow factor" of Office 2010. Global Crossing is seeing measurable productivity gains from co-authoring work, such as on an RFP or a PowerPoint--as much as 30% in its testing of PowerPoint co-creation. With RFPs, it estimates a 10%-20% time savings. "In an RFP, there are four or five people working on these documents at a time," Wicklund says.

Would Global Crossing consider Google Docs? The IT teams is always looking and open minded, says Steve Schafer, director of internal collaboration services. But one of the values it sees in Microsoft is the "integration of all the products together," with ties among Office, Office Communicator, SharePoint, and Exchange, and increasingly extended to the company's smartphone users.

Most of us, I think, don't know how we'll collaborate with these emerging real-time tools. That's why I'm harping on what's admittedly just one feature of the new collaboration software from Microsoft and Google. Just as we had to learn how to use instant messaging differently than e-mail, we're going to have to learn how and when to do real time co-creation of documents, spreadsheets, and slide presentations.

Which vision do you want for real-time co-authoring? Google's wide-open approach, which trusts that users can work out their own ground rules for effective real-time collaboration? Or Microsoft, which builds in more controls? Or do you want it at all?

It's a good problem to have.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO.

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