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Apps Need Collaboration At Core

Applications are learning the art of conversation. It's like when websites went from being static content broadcasters to interactive forums. Downloading a menu PDF was nice. Going to Yelp and seeing that a place had health code violations before you took your date there? Even better. Now, thin SaaS apps are again resetting user expectations, raising the bar on the baseline set of features any new app must have. Yes, auto-updating is in, manually downloading and installing patches is out. But administrative automation is just Phase 1 of this cloud-enhanced application evolution. Today's "social" apps enable multiple parties to contribute to and comment on a work product, whether it's a memo, presentation, drawing, video, or review of the new dim sum place.

We've seen this sort of disruption before, when browser-based applications upset the client-server application apple cart--and its associated big-dollar software licensing business model. Just ask Microsoft and Oracle how that works out for the bottom line. So when planning new apps, remember that collaboration is no longer something your target audience does as a distinct activity, relegated to its own application niche. Instead, collaboration is an integral feature people now (or soon will) expect from every application. Whether writing a memo, editing and organizing a photo album, or reading a news feed, we want the ability to content with friends and colleagues and let them comment on and mark up our work. Much as graphical operating systems that endowed every application with the clipboard and native OS network APIs let us seamlessly embed a Web browser or email client, today's collaboration-aware applications must embrace the Facebook/blog site paradigm by incorporating comment streams, multiparty editing, and shared task lists and calendars and like buttons.

Lately I've written about the many collaboration platforms that seek to extend the power of social networks and online collaboration to business tasks and work streams. While the sheer multitude of these products (I run through many in these stories: Facebook In A Shirt And Tie, How To Make SharePoint More Social, and Microsoft, Google Struggle With New Face Of Collaboration) is testament to the business model, a prime example of how extensively social collaboration is pervading the general application milieu came after a demonstration of Mindjet Connect, a SaaS version of the quintessential mind-mapping application MindManager. It's a perfect example of software making the leap from thick desktop application to Web 2.0, and an accompanying embrace of collaborative work.

Mind mapping has moved from solitary academic exercise to popular enterprise tool used to capture and organize ideas for everything from corporate strategy to new products--an evolution that prompted Mindjet to venture into the world of SaaS and online collaboration. Mindjet's transformation play illustrates the larger trend. "Mindjet Connect takes visual mapping, puts it into the cloud, and makes it collaborative," says CEO Scott Raskin, who argues that mind mapping through Mindjet Connect complements other task-based social collaboration software. This view explains his company's recent acquisition of Cohuman, an enterprise-focused collaboration site akin to Asana or that never gained much traction and needed a lifeline.

Raskin's goal is to build an integrated, end-to-end "collaborative work management" suite. As he and his team surveyed the collaboration landscape, he says they found many products designed around project management but nothing that provided "an easy-to-use environment that lets you capture thoughts on what you're trying to accomplish."

This "what" vs. "how" dichotomy is key. Mindjet Connect addresses the initial brainstorming and goal-forming phases of new projects. Cohuman, which is still a separate product but will be fully integrated, addresses the project planning, management, and team communication phases "in a way that keeps people coordinated that's not email-based or blog-based," says Raskin, who sees adding mind mapping to the project management toolkit as a way to address a key shortcoming of other social task management products--documenting why we're doing what we're doing; that is, how the task even got into the project plan. Pairing a traditionally solitary or, at best, tightly controlled, creative activity like refining and organizing ideas with the wide-open turmoil typical of collaborative task management seems antithetical. Yet they're not oil and water, but ham and eggs … a symbiotic combination where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Mindjet's newfound collaboration religion is emblematic of how social collaboration is reshaping the application ecosystem. Google, with its online productivity suite, reset expectations as to how simply and seamlessly collaboration can be integrated into traditional office applications, forcing Microsoft to follow suit with Office 365. But these are just the most visible examples of the "collaborification" of applications. As one software vendor after another rushes to repurpose thick applications as online services, a key differentiator is the ability to easily collaborate, whether via Web forms and structured documents ( or video (WeVideo). This integration of collaboration into virtually all application genres doesn't bode well for point products and services--no one wants to add yet another information stream to the daily email/calendar/RSS, Twitter/Facebook/Google Plus monitoring ritual. App builders need to bake collaboration right in. So what's stopping us?

One problem is integrating collaborative applications with a social network. The ad hoc nature of email and phone networks is one of their best features; I can mail, message, or call anyone once I know the address. It's not quite so simple with online collaboration, where I typically need to invite people into my social network and force them to go through the tedium of creating an account. Thus, it's encouraging that Cohuman and Podio now support federated login schemes like OpenID, thus allowing users to sign in with a Google (or Google Apps) account in much the way many websites use a Twitter or Facebook ID for personalization, instead of a separate account.

As embedded collaboration becomes the norm, how will you address this "make versus rent" problem of building collaboration networks? Let me know at [email protected].

We examine the SaaS productivity market, compare the two major offerings, review the pros and cons of cloud-based messaging and collaboration services, and outline some deployment scenarios for introducing these services into your company.