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Collaboration and integration in the era of web applications

posted Jun 3, 2009, 2:09 AM by Matteo Risoldi
I work in IT. More precisely, I work in academic research in computer science. Things I do include coding, writing articles, teaching.
Computers and software are a big part of the tools I use every day to accomplish my tasks. I have worked until now with different suits for different tasks. I generally use Eclipse for all my coding stuff; LaTeX for writing; a website for publishing my teaching material; CVS to manage concurrent modifications of code or text; email to notify people about new available material, or to discuss and synchronize on projects.
My experience is that this paradigm sort of works. These tools greatly help my work if you compare it to what it could have been 10 or 15 years ago, but they lack a fundamental thing: integration.

Integration is something that I still have to do by hand. If I commit a new version of mycode, I still have to send email to say it. If I publish photos on my website, I still have to tell people to go and watch them. I still need to ask people to send their photos of an event to add them to my own and publish them. In general, I still have to do a lot of work to make applications speak with each other.

Recently I started noticing that web applications are becoming more powerful. Not only that, but they are starting to put focus on sharing and integrating. Find a video on Youtube, you have links to post them to Twitter or Facebook. Put your photos on Picasa, you can easily republish them on a blog. These integration functionalities seem nothing at the beginning, but they constitute a big change empowering the user and freeing him from the burden of having to update several locations and services for a single publishing event.

Besides, this paradigm started locally on users' machines. Looking at the OS X platform, I find that the biggest secret to its success is the tight integration of its applications, where for example if I add photos to iPhoto I have them available in all Apple's applications, I can publish them on the web and share them with friends with very little effort. I can tag photos with names of the people in them, the place where it was taken. Other platforms are going in the same direction. The basic idea is that the user does not have to organize information and remember where it is and under which form: computers can do that very well. I just have to remember that I have a photo of my holidays with me and my wife on the beach, and that photo has to be readily available to me by querying for it, without me even knowing where it is on my disk.

Google is taking this approach to the web. They started years ago with GMail. In GMail, there is no need to classify messages in folders by hand; the accent is on their content and on retrieving them via search. During the years, they added more applications that interact nicely with each other and with external applications. I can add a meeting in Google Calendar, it will appear in my colleagues' calendar applications on their machines and every invited person will receive email reminders of the meeting. I can edit a text in Google Docs, and other editors are able to edit it online without having to send it around as an email attachment. I can see their edits and accept or reverse them, comment on them and so on.

Now Google seems to be taking this integrated approach to a new summit. I recently saw the Google Wave preview at the Google I/O conference. It is a-ma-zing. The level of integration and sharing in it is simply revolutionary.
The preview (actually a demo) is long, it lasts over an hour. But if you, like me, need to perform collaborative work on documents and publish material in your day to day activity, then you should really have a look at that.
Watch the video on Youtube