I had an interesting conversation with teacher and friend Clifford Tatum on the subject of my previous post, Collaborative Work for the Future, largely as a direct result of having freshly written and published its content. While a large part of the proceedings revolved around the difficulty of uniting communities, technologies, and needs (among other things), we raised many more questions than we answered, and so I would like to start by pointing out a few examples that I now realize fall under the wing of non-software-development collaborative platforms which I would like to address.
First is Microsoft’s SharePoint. While it certainly provides a collaborative platform with revision and user tracking, with the added benefit of a useful, rich, and familiar working environment (Microsoft Office), it has more than its share of significant shortcomings. One is the sheer mass of technology involved: dedicated servers are needed to power the platform, with enterprise-grade database (MS-SQL) and web (IIS+ASP.NET) services. The amount of setup work is remarkably prohibitive and upgrading the software components is a nightmare, on top of which the entire platform is built to function mostly in a trusted Intranet environment, not for worldwide collaboration. In addition, the whole package, which requires not only the SharePoint software, but also the aforementioned Windows Server, MS-SQL, and ASP.NET licenses, tally up to a rather frightening price tag, on top of the maintenance and server upkeep costs. Clearly, this solution is aimed at medium to large businesses, and not the average user or researcher.
A similar product to SharePoint is Alfresco. I haven’t personally used it, but it’s built entirely on an open-source software stack, and is free to use. It has yet to make any major waves on the market, and since they don’t appear to offer fully-hosted services based on their software, installation is again a key factor. However, it might be interesting to keep an eye on them in the future.
But what do the researchers need? What do non-profit organizations need? Does there need to be comprehensive project management features built-in to the document collaboration platform? What is the key ingredient that is missing at the moment? This difficulty in uniting communities with technologies and addressing their needs head-on has been traditionally (one would assume) a barrier to the advancement of these technologies, and needs to be addressed.
Perhaps now that I have a small handful of research projects under my belt, finding out what researchers and small organizations want is my next step.