Converging on best practice for online collaboration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 11, 2013
A new note-taking feature from online content collaboration vendor Huddle is a welcome sign of convergence in enterprise file sharing platforms

Library Card Catalog
As a user of multiple online collaboration tools in various contexts, I'm always frustrated by the variety of features each tool omits, undermining the utility of those it includes. Even more frustrating is the lack of consensus among users about how to use online collaboration — even if the right features are provided for a given task, there's no guarantee your collaborators will use it effectively. But you can't blame the users when when there's so little consistency from the providers.

This all underlines how far short of maturity the online collaboration space still falls. As I wrote in a market overview of cloud collaboration, social and docs earlier this year:

We've never before been able to be social across time and distance, aided by smart automation that helps us get more out of those interactions. While the cloud has made working together simultaneously global and immediate, it's not always self-evident how to translate that into business benefit.

Thus the news this week that content collaboration vendor Huddle has added a collaborative note-making capability to its online document store is welcome, and it should be no surprise that this is remarkably similar to the Notes function introduced by rival platform Box in September.

Great minds think alike?

This is not a case of UK-based Huddle hastily rushing out something in response to the move by richly funded US-based Box — which announced a further $112 million in funding last week. I've been a beta user of the functionality since mid-October (Huddle provides an account to EuroCloud Europe, where I serve as a vice-president). Work started on it in the first half of this year, Huddle's CEO Alastair Mitchell told me in a briefing last week:

"I think it's interesting that we decided to do this at the same time as Box, completely independently.

"We found people wanted to make notes, record a discussion, do a brainstorm, right there in the document store — because they don't think of it as a document store any more, it's increasingly a collaboration space."

This is certainly my own experience. I'd been hugely frustrated at not being able to throw up a collaborative document within an online folder — perhaps instructions about the folder contents or the project it relates to, a quick note of action points during a meeting, or a collection of ideas and suggestions for next steps. The apps were too locked into being a document store, not ready enough to be a collaboration platform.

As an aside, it's interesting that Google Drive never appealed to me as an alternative. It's theoretically capable of doing all of this, but not in a self-evident way — in my experience you need an expert to set it up for you. Even more irritatingly, a large slug of the expertise is expended on stopping Google from publishing your details in inappropriate ways. I may be working in projects where it makes no sense to publish my identity as part of that project. Google seems too involved in trying to become a social network to respect those boundaries.

Different trajectories, same goal

These differences stem from each vendor approaching the market from different directions. Box and Huddle are both more enterprise focused than Google, but their trajectories differ, even if they may end up converging on very similar ground. Box started out as a consumer offering and is adding enterprise capabilities — including a new batch of measures announced today that will please IT managers. Huddle has been much more narrowly focused on the enterprise market, while still taking a pureplay cloud approach that emphasizes access by external and mobile users.

Those different trajectories throw up some telling contrasts. Whereas Box made much of adding metadata to documents as part of its enterprise play in September, Huddle shies away from doing something that it sees as harking back to the highly structured habits of knowledge management. Mitchell told me:

"Our requirements from our customers are relatively light in that area. What they rely on much more is recommendations from people to find content, good search and activity streams. The tagging function, it really is a checklist function that people look for but no one actually uses."

The bare-bones look of Huddle's note-making functionality is another distinction from Box's more social UI. Mitchell explained that many enterprise users have less powerful machines and are intermittent computer users who find it hard to pick up new functionality. Simplicity is therefore paramount:

"We will focus on keeping the very simplest core set of features. In an enterprise you have to keep things simpler than in a consumer setting."

"This is the same user requirement delivered in an enterprise product."

There's still a fair amount of sophistication hidden under the covers of the Huddle Note app, with the ability to embed photos, video and formatting. A WYSIWYG editing option is planned, but at launch there's no menu of formatting options. Instead, Huddle has opted for a markup approach that allows power users to embed formatting if they choose to learn the codes.

MS Office sidelined

Mitchell sees two main use cases for the new note-making functionality. One is this ability to instantly create collaborative notes directly in the document store. The other is giving enough document capability to obviate the need for enterprises to pay the cost of Office licences for occasional users. One European transport and logistics company expects to save the cost of 20,000 licenses for such users by adopting Huddle, he claimed.

That doesn't make any of these simple note-taking applications a Microsoft Office killer. These are users that were always poorly served by the document-centric word processing model anyway, which merely perpetuates a static metaphor of printed documents that are passed around in complex, fragmented workflow patterns.

By making the documents themselves collaborative and putting them directly into the collaboration space, these vendors are moving towards a new, dynamic document format that is a core foundation of best practice for online collaboration in a connected world.

Disclosure: Box is a diginomica partner. The author is a vice-president of EuroCloud, which has free use of a Huddle instance for document collaboration.

Photo credit: © epitavi -

A grey colored placeholder image