Technology May 2007

Group Therapy

New programs ease the frustration of working with others online.
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Computers are great for purely individual activity. Creating your own documents, storing your own photos, saving your own e-mail—this is why they were called “personal” computers in the first place. With the spread of broadband Internet access, ordinary desktop and laptop computers have also become tools for activities that connect thousands or millions of participants. Online games with millions of players around the world, vast virtual marketplaces like eBay, the collective knowledge piling up in news reports and blogs all indexed for rapid retrieval—none of these were possible 20 years ago, and all are easy now.

Where computer technology falls short is in the zone between the individual and the universal. Here I’m referring to the efforts of the small groups or teams—numbering a few people to a few dozen—through which much of the world’s work actually gets done, including within large organizations. Major software firms have long recognized the importance of providing better systems for such “workgroup” or “collaborative” projects. Their offerings have tended to be very specific or very grandiose.

The specific features, like “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat’s similar “Review and Comment,” are indispensable but limited. Usually they don’t “scale” easily, so they can get overwhelmed if too many users make too many comments. The grandiose solutions are comprehensive, company-wide systems like SharePoint and Groove, both from Microsoft, and Domino, Notes, and Connections, from Lotus/IBM. These products can do almost anything: coordinate schedules and deadlines for participants in large-scale projects, create searchable databases of corporate information, automatically connect colleagues with similar research interests in different parts of an organization. But they have the predictable drawbacks of complex, standardized systems, including being very difficult for mere mortals to set up and maintain.

In practice, small-group collaboration that can’t be handled face to face takes place mainly through the imperfect medium of e-mail. Everyone recognizes e-mail’s benefits and also its drawbacks: long, hard-to-follow threads, confusion over who is responsible for what, and simple oversupply. In 2004, a young CNet sales manager named Isaac Garcia was coordinating a multi­million-dollar deal with Microsoft and several smaller companies. More than 50 people were involved in the effort—“and we ran the whole thing, all the deadlines and specs, over e-mail, which just drove me crazy,” Garcia told me recently. “It blew me away that even at Microsoft, it was just too much work to set up their own official collaboration system.” Based on that and similar experiences, Garcia and his business partner, Arnulf Hsu, founded the Central Desktop company two years ago in Pasadena, California; both were then barely into their 30s but already had two successful start-ups behind them. Their Central Desktop program is one of a rapidly growing array of Web-based solutions to the collaboration problem. Other well-known ones are Basecamp, from the 37signals company of Chicago, and WebOffice, from WebEx Communications of Santa Clara, California. WebEx is the only publicly traded company in this group, and its system is thought to outsell the others. The similar, popular JotSpot program was taken off the market last fall after its creator, the Jot company of Palo Alto, California, was acquired by Google. Presumably it will reemerge in some future Google offering.

The programs have different emphases and features, but all of them are good. All offer free-trial periods, so you can get a feel for how they work. All are designed to be quick and easy to set up and use, so that non-nerds don’t have to pore through confusing manuals or call the IT department if they’d like to create a project site. That is to say, they’re meant to be easy enough that ordinary people will actually use them—as they have learned to use e-mail, spreadsheets, and, increasingly, blogs. And most apply the “wiki” model to coordinating projects.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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