Thursday, August 27, 2009

Part IV: Next-Generation Web Applications Embrace Collaboration

Sharing is good

I saved the topic of Collaboration, key to next-generation web application design, for my fourth and final post in this series for good reason. Social networking, wikis, instant messaging, and micro-blogging are now central to so much of what we do as both consumers and businesspeople that their effects on enterprise applications are already pronounced. Lyndsay Wise recently emphasized the effects of social media and open source BI in an outstanding article. My three previous posts described required building blocks for next-generation web applications. Collaboration is important enough to take up at least one floor of this new building.

Recently, my worldview changed with regard to software-based collaboration techniques. As a long-time business intelligence insider, of course I thought about the world from the BI tool outward. From this BI-centric view, collaboration features are added on to the BI platform to enable mark-up and annotation, workflow routing, and other basic collaboration features.

Then I saw Google Wave.

I’ve written about this before, but am saving the punchline for this post: The proper way to think about collaboration within a software system is to put the end-user in the center of the universe.

From this view, a business day is all about collaboration. So, the various tools that I use to do my job (CRM information, spreadsheet data, any variety of documents, and business intelligence-driven information) should be consistently collaborative. In other words, collaboration is the first-order matter to solve and other applications and tools should work within that collaboration paradigm. This is why email has emerged as and remains the most dominant collaboration platform. Hmmm. . . . that certainly changes my BI-centric view and makes an open source collaboration platform incredibly important.

And, while we are working hard at Jaspersoft to ensure the most important collaboration features will be delivered within our BI platform, the bigger picture says we’d better ensure our software works well within the most common collaboration platforms. Such consistency will make the end-user’s ability to share and collaborate significantly easier.

Setting aside Google Wave, I set out to find other, powerful examples of open source collaboration platforms that can be used today. I was surprised that many claim to be “collaboration platforms,” asserting that they encompass a more complete set of technical services required to enable those who need to work together toward common goals to do so much more effectively.

I am impressed with several open source collaboration platforms worth pointing to here because they can enable many other software applications or systems to work within them, thus accomplishing the end-user-centric view I emphasized earlier. For example, the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA) has created a “Common Customer View” demonstration to emphasize a nicely integrated set of open source products in a collaborative environment (including Jaspersoft and JBoss Portal). And, below are sample screen shots from Alfresco and MindTouch. Both of these companies position their products as collaboration platforms. While they differ in their approach and emphasis, both seem incredibly useful in the right solution scenarios.

MindTouch offers a well-orchestrated and flexible set of web services that enable a wide variety of collaborative applications to be developed on top of it. And, Alfresco focuses more on enterprise document-based collaboration.

These examples show that I’m not the only guy in open source software to embrace this new user-centric worldview.

I am both optimistic and energized that this new generation of collaboration platforms will help transform today’s difficult, non-collaborative world of typical enterprise applications. Importantly, collaboration combined with ubiquitous access, elegant presentation and end-user customization enables a web application that powers the next-generation workforce to new levels of capability.

Brian Gentile
Chief Executive Officer