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.
A wiki is an online site where one or more users can very easily enter or edit information; Wikipedia is the most famous example. Google has given users a limited taste of the wiki approach to collaboration with its Google Docs & Spreadsheets programs, online counterparts to programs like Word and Excel. The documents you create with them are stored in encrypted form on Google’s servers, rather than on your hard drive. You and other people you authorize can log on via any Internet connection to view the documents and make comments or changes—all of them tracked, so everyone can see who has done what. Team members at different sites can all look at the same document at once. (NoteShare, from AquaMinds, is an elegant program that allows Macintosh users to share documents in a wiki fashion.)
The new collaboration tools extend the logic and richness of this process. For instance: Karl Hausker, deputy director of a nonprofit group called the Center for Climate Strategies, explained to me how his organization uses Central Desktop. The organization has more than 20 employees scattered across the United States and Canada. “The torrent of e‑mail pouring into all of our computers was driving us nuts,” he said. “So few people have secretaries anymore, there is no one to turn to when you need to compare calendars or schedule meetings or calls. Pretty soon you have a dozen crisscrossing ‘Reply All’ e-mails to sort through, with little or no indication of their importance or priority.”
Two years ago, Hausker set up a Central Desktop site where team members can log in to check the project calendar, note when they are and aren’t free for meetings or calls, track assigned tasks and mark progress, post reference reports to a common library, and comment on and edit documents, with no confusion about which is the current version. The easiest way to imagine such a workspace is as something like a shared version of Outlook, where members of a team can see not only their own to-do lists, deadlines, and so on but also those of their colleagues. The systems can be arranged to notify members by e‑mail when there is something new for them to do or check. Hausker said that his other team members found the system painless to learn and use, so that now “it is the glue that holds us together.”
Of the systems mentioned here, Basecamp has the most passionate loyalists and, occasionally, detractors; it is to the online-collaboration world what Apple is to computing. Its founder, Jason Fried, now in his early 30s, is a former Web designer who created the program because he was unhappy with the systems available for managing his own projects. “Everything we do starts as a need for our own business,” he told me. “We know that if we need something, a lot of other businesses are likely to need roughly the same thing.” The Basecamp blog, Signal vs. Noise (tinyurl.com/8obl), written by Fried and the other seven members of his company, is a platform for their design concept of elegant minimalism.
Garcia and Hsu are more flexible about adding features to their Central Desktop—for instance, a way you can quickly create a Web conference with other team members when you see that they are online. WebOffice is the most feature-rich and expensive of the three. The cheapest usable version of Basecamp (the free version is extremely limited) is $12 per month; Central Desktop’s is $25, with plenty of online storage; WebOffice’s is $59.95. But the systems have so many varied pricing offers, depending on number of users and amount of storage space (plus other factors), that you should check for yourself. Maybe I can persuade members of my workgroup to start checking too.