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Too Many New Ways To Work?

June 22, 2015

Is anybody else drowning in options for collaboration and organization?

Whether it’s a new way to organize your email, store your documents in the cloud, organize your photos and videos, or collaborate and be social there are multiple competing solutions. Most of them don’t interact, or have only minimal compatibility.

Is this helpful? How can we balance a “let 1,000 flowers bloom” approach* with getting to a point where these systems are generally useful without creating silos based on who uses which product?

Many years ago software publishers found it in their interest to develop and, to a greater or lesser degree, comply with, standards for things like SMTP email and rendering of HTML. This was later extended, not quite as successfully, to calendar standards, so that I can now accept an invitation from pretty much any source and send back some sort of acknowledgement. File encoding reached the point where we can share files between Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix fairly transparently.

But I can’t use my public or enterprise microblogging platform to share posts to all my contacts on their preferred platform. I can send a link to download a file from my cloud platform to anyone. But if I want to grant editing rights, or collaboratively edit, or make content easy to find, then we generally need to have credentials on the same system, and there will usually be some software downloading and installing involved. I don’t have a single place to share photos and videos; some will see them if I post on Facebook, others on Instagram, others on Google. The best most publishers have managed is to let you post content to multiple places at once.

My best theory as to why the earlier focus on standards and interoperability has not been applied to newer needs is that we’re now talking about service providers rather than software publishers. They have a much stronger incentive to lock users into their systems. But they’re fighting against Metcalfe’s Law**. Ever more segmentation of the user universe decreases the value of these systems for everyone. The end result will be lowest common denominator communications. Today that’s SMS and email. And the whole incentive for all the new whizbang social and collaboration platforms is that old-school store-and-forward technologies are not good ways to collaborate.

Any hopeful signs out there? I don’t see them.


*Mao actually said “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” and those who did generally got executed if Mao didn’t like the result, but I use the common misquotation and I’m not stressing the execution aspect.

**Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2).

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