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Thinking Outside the Outbox
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Such a view fits a typical corporate office. But it doesn't fit many new-style companies with looser webs of collaboration, or individuals in home offices working closely with a range of clients, or students, or artists, or people in the broadest sense. These represent a lot of blind spots.



That's why Microsoft didn't anticipate viruses. ActiveX and Windows Scripting Host were designed for airtight local networks behind corporate hubs. Subjected to the unpredictable, buffeting winds of the free-ranging Internet where most of us work, these technologies get blown away. But I wouldn't write this essay just to join the chorus of irate technology journalists and snipe at Microsoft for inflicting e-mail viruses on us. It's not too late for Microsoft to upgrade their security significantly, so their vulnerability to viruses could diminish greatly in the future. I mention the virus problem because it's a symptom of a much deeper loss.

Here are a few things that I wish we could do on our desktops, but that neither Microsoft (because of their corporate world-view) nor others (because of the hegemony of Microsoft) have yet given us.

Collaboration

When I sit down with colleagues at work, we scribble over each other's documents, rip out pages to compare them, snip them into pieces to reassemble them, and do all sorts of other unstructured collaboration. Wouldn't it be great if everyday office products allowed people to do this kind of work while sitting thousands of miles apart? Microsoft Word takes a step in this direction through the "revisions" feature (which I wish all software vendors would emulate), but it would be great for me to watch a colleague cross out a word and shout, "Stop! That's a specific technical term that has to stay put!"

There's nothing new about groupware. Doug Englebart provided an extremely sophisticated vision of it way back in his AUGMENT project of the early 1960s. The discipline of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) has been a fixture of computer science research since the 1980s. Today, Lotus Notes embodies some of those insights. But collaborate computing of the fluid, brainstorming sort is still not commonplace.

Instead, millions of office workers send millions of bulky Word documents, spreadsheets, and Powerpoint presentations over e-mail day after day to their coworkers, who probably don't even want the damn things. Making a minor correction means sending the whole thing over another e-mail to everybody. The waste is enormous. I confess that once I put a certain regular mailing in my e-mail kill file, because I didn't have the heart to tell a coworker that I had no use for the documents he spent his life on.

Microsoft will go on adding features to its bloated office products forever, but never will it support the type of collaborative work that fosters sudden inspiration, in my opinion. This is because such support would require putting more power in the users' hands, leaving it up to the users to define their forums and their ground rules. The model is not top-down.

Collaborative software is hard to develop in any case. Others who have tried it have hit intrinsic technical barriers; I'm not blaming Microsoft for everything. Just checking multiple clients for updates to a common document, managing locks on resources, and monitoring the coming and going of clients requires a surprising amount of overhead. Authentication is also a big job. Especially for Microsoft, whose clumsy handling of Kerberos shows that it's a newcomer to the authentication game.

In short, we have a long way to go before collaborative work can be a part of the kind of robust, easy-to-use software that is ready for the masses. But the dominance of Microsoft products will hold it back for an indefinite amount of time.

Immersion

People who collaborate do so with all their senses and faculties. We jabber at each other, put our arms around each other's shoulders, and scrutinize each other's faces. Researchers in human-computer interaction (HCI) have long stated that computers will be severely limited until they can recognize and support a wide range of modes of behavior. For me, interacting with a technical instrument is not so interesting as interacting with other people through the instrument, but in both cases the computer needs a lot of capabilities that are only in laboratories now.

We can appreciate what Microsoft has done for accessibility (adding features at the behest of blind users, for instance, so that they can interact with a graphical interface), and they are also reportedly working behind the scenes on voice recognition. Barking an order at your File menu, however, is still no progress toward an integrated system that allows voice, gestures, and other everyday means of interaction. Not even a playback technology like DirectX comes close to such a system.

There's no barrier to Microsoft's providing a breadth of interactive functionality, but I just don't see them being the company to do so. They aren't tuned into telephony, robotics, and other technological areas where innovations in these areas are likely to emerge. Why should any one company be strong in all areas? What we need are opportunities for experts in such areas to offer products to the general public. But anything they do will be marginal so long as most people rely on Microsoft products. Maybe we need HCI technology that notifies us of our blind spots.

History

Version or change control is another common software practice that Microsoft doesn't understand. If I'm going to get a weekly mailing of a spreadsheet, I'd like to be able to find out quickly what's different this week. I suppose I could write a script to do so, but the software should really provide it for me gratis. Or I could ask, "By what percentage did such-and-such a product change in sales this week?" Cross-comparisons are also valuable: "What else changed this week that could have had an effect on the product?" And I'd like to know what people are thinking: "How has each stage of review changed the way we state a sensitive point?"

Change control systems also allow people to add meta-comments about why things changed. Microsoft Word offers lots of great meta-information: the outline and document map (although I find they're not very helpful unless the writer was thinking about them while writing), revision control, embedded comments, and so on -- but they don't add up to a sense of history about the document. History, of course, is also an important part of collaboration.

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