Dropbox Paper is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Last week, I wrote about the commoditization of the enterprise file sharing market and how pure play vendors are being forced to evolve their offerings to stay alive. My post focused on Hightail (originally YouSendIt) and its announcement of Spaces – a specialized file sharing, annotating and publishing offering for creative professionals.
Dropbox also made a product announcement last week, albeit quietly. The company has expanded beta testing of Paper, a new offering that was released in a highly limited beta, in March, under the name Notes.  Like Hightail’s new offering, Dropbox’s illustrates how they are responding to the functional parity that vendors have achieved with basic file sharing offerings and to their rapid downward price movement.

Yet Another Collaborative Authoring Tool?

Most commentators, including Gigaom’s Nathaniel Mott in his article from last week, described Paper as “a collaborative writing tool”. They compared it to Google Docs, Microsoft Office (especially its Word and OneNote components) and startup Quip. For sure, Paper has similar functionality to those products, and it allows people to write and edit documents together in real-time. However, I don’t believe that is the main point of Dropbox’s beta product. Instead, Paper is intended to be used as a lightweight case management tool.
Case Management is a discipline that brings resources, including relevant content, related to a single instance of a business process or an initiative into a common place – the case folder. While many think of Case Management as a digital technology, its principles were established in business activities that were wholly paper-based.
Think of an insurance claim years ago, where a customer filled out a paper claim form, and it  was then routed throughout the insurance company in a paper folder. As the process continued, additional paper documents, perhaps even printed photographs, were added to the folder. The last documents to go into the folder were the final claim decision letter to the customer and a copy of the check, if a payment was made on the claim.
Today, that same insurance claim process is likely to generate and use a mix of paper-based and electronic documents, although insurance companies are slowly moving as much of the process online as possible. However, the concept of organizing information related to the claim into a single folder remains, although the folder is now likely to be an electronic artifact, not a paper one.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Take another look at Dropbox’s beta Paper. Do you see it? Paper is a single point of organization for new content, files stored in Dropbox (and other repositories), existing Web content and discussions on all of those things. It’s a meta-document that acts like a case folder.
Paper enables lightweight case management, not the industrial-strength, production kind needed to handle high-volume, transactional business processes like insurance claims. Paper is case management for small teams, whose work might follow a pattern over time, but does not conform to a well-defined, repeatable process.
Working on a new software product at an early-stage startup with only a few coworkers? Start a new document in Paper, then add the functional and technical requirements, business projections, marketing assets, sales collateral, even the code for the software. Everything that is relevant to the product is one place in which it can be shared, viewed, commented on, discussed, edited and used for decision making. Just like a case folder in Case Management.

A New Way of Working

Still not convinced? Dropbox Product Manager Matteus Pan recently said:
“Work today is really fragmented…teams have really wanted a single surface to bring all of [their] ideas into a single place.” “Creation and collaboration are only half the problem,” he said. “The other half is how information is organized and retrieved across an entire company.”
That sounds like case management to me, but not the old-school type that you are likely more familiar with. Instead, Paper reflects the newer principles of Adaptive Case Management.
Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is a newer technology set that has been evolving from Production Case Management (PCM) over the last few years. ACM helps people deal with volatile processes by including collaboration tools alongside the workflow tools that are the backbone of PCM.
Dropbox Paper may be viewed as an extreme example of ACM, one which relies completely on the manual control of work rather than automating parts of it. In that regard, Paper takes its cues from enterprise social software, which is also designed to enable human coordination of emergent work, rather than the automation of stable processes. As Paper is more widely used in the current beta and beyond, it will be interesting to see if its adoption is stunted by the same obstacles that have limited the wholesale changes to established ways of working that social software requires.

Crashing Waves

I have not yet seen a demo of Dropbox Paper, but the screenshots, textual descriptions and comments from Dropbox employees that I have absorbed are enough to reveal that the product is more than just another collaborative authoring tool. If I was asked to make a comparison between Paper and another existing or previous tool, I would say that it reminds me of Google Wave, not Docs or Microsoft Office. Like Wave, Paper is a blank canvas on which you can collaborate with team members and work with multiple content types related to a single idea or business process in one place.
Google Wave was a powerful, but unintuitive tool that failed to get market traction. Will Paper suffer the same fate? Perhaps, but Dropbox hopes that the world is now ready for this new way to work. In fact, Dropbox is, in some regards, staking its continued existence on just that, as it tries to differentiate itself from other purveyors of commoditized file sharing services.

Office 2016 is Microsoft’s Post-Windows Breakthrough

Office 2016 has been reviewed in great detail by many market watchers, including Microsoft itself. But the release represents something much more important than the specifics of how Delve and Cortana work, the differences between Tell Me on Clippy, or even the focus on collaboration — ‘taking the work out of working together’. Office 2016 is a declaration of Microsoft moving past the Windows era of computing, and staking its claim as a leader in the cross-platform productivity world we now inhabit.
Office 2016 is now available not just on various Windows versions, but on Mac, iOS, and Android. This is the new Microsoft, a company that is committed to providing a revamped notion of productivity to where people are getting things done, which is increasingly on today’s most popular mobile platforms, not on the desktop machines of five or ten years ago.
Instead of digging into the features app-by-app, it’s more useful to consider the forces that Microsoft is channeling in the social architecture of Office 2016. As I said, it’s geared to a mobile world. But in a mobile world, the shape and tempo of teamwork has shifted in profound ways. Work is increasingly connected and improvisational, relying more on people working in parallel — coworking in real-time — so Microsoft has invested heavily in coediting, coauthoring, and coordinating. This is the aspect of Office 2016 that most directly catches up to Google Drive, and which threatens to outdo it. Microsoft has had coauthoring in Office native apps since 2013, but this is the first roll-out in web apps, where more work is getting done these days.
But Office 2016 is not just playing catch-up with the sharing model of Google Drive. I think one of the most important additions — and one that is getting lesser attention from reviewers — is the new task management capability, Planner.
planner-hub
I have suggested for quite a long time that task management is a foundational aspect of work, and so any ‘productivity suite’ should have that as a core aspect. The company has offered Microsoft Project for decades, and while is a great project management tool, it’s not organized to serve as a coordinative task management solution, but rather as a planning tool.
I have not had a chance to use Planner for any length of time — I’ve only had a few demos — so a detailed analysis of how it works in the context of other Office capabilities will have to wait. But with its introduction, Microsoft is taking a step forward toward different set of premises regarding the way that teams get work done, and the tools they need to do so.
I don’t want to reduce such a major release of functionality to one element, but to me much of what we are seeing in Office 2016 is the extension of things that we’ve seen before, at least in part. Planner is an independent advance, and one that shift the discussion about productivity away from the world of documents — in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint — and squarely into the coordination of work.

Sunrise launches Office 365 and Outlook.com integration, and Meet scheduling tool

Microsoft bought Sunrise in February (see Microsoft reported to acquire calendar app Sunrise), so it’s no surprise that they have been working on an integration with Office 365 and Outlook.com. Here’s the web interface showing the new integrations, now at the top of the list:
Screenshot 2015-07-11 10.04.17
I don’t have an active Office 365 account (something I let lapse when the old Gigaom shut down in March), so I couldn’t test it out, and apparently the Outlook.com integration is not 100% there, yet.
I tacked on the Meet scheduling tool now integrated into Sunrise, since it was released in May, prior to the Gigaom Research relaunch. Meet is a capability designed to deal with the headaches involved in scheduling meetings.
On the web version there is a ‘Meet’ button, and when you click you can then select a collection of possible times from your calendar. Options exist for various lengths for the meeting (30 minutes, and hour, etc.) and the location or medium for the meeting. Once your done making the list you hit a check mark, and a URL is placed in your clip buffer, so you can paste into an email or chat.
The approach on iOS and Android is actually slicker. New versions of the app include a keyboard, which — once configured — can be popped up inside any app, and which displays your calendar in context. Here’s my Gmail, for example:
2015-07-11 10.11.18
Here, you see I’ve selected two times for a possible meeting. Once I hit the checkmark, it is pasted into the text of the mail:
2015-07-11 10.12.15
This is a great design, and avoids having to switch back and forth between apps. Brilliant.
The only limitation is that this approach is currently limited to one-on-one meetings, and doesn’t tackle the exponential complexities of coordinating with many meeting participants, but I bet that the Sunrise folks are going to iron that out soon. Maybe I’ll drop my Amy Ingram virtual assistant (see x.ai is the best scheduling tool — er, assistant? — ever) when they release that!

Farhad Manjoo has the same problem with calendars we all do

Manjoo begs for calendar relief in Will Someone Please Make a Better Online Calendar? buried in a review of a very-early beta of Magneto (I hope to get a demo next week). He writes,

[…] even if it’s far from perfect, I want to shower Magneto with praise for one of its most terrific features, an idea that addresses — though does not yet completely solve — my biggest frustration with digital calendars.

That frustration: Scheduling meetings between two or more people is too difficult. It’s the biggest flaw in online calendars. And someone needs to fix it, please.

Two or three times a day, often over email, I endure a tedious back-and-forth negotiation over when and where I’m going to meet a friend or colleague.

He details an agonizing call-and-response scenario — How about Wed or Thu am, Ok let’s meet at my office at 9am Wed, oh you meant your office I can’t get there then, ok how about… —  and then summarizes:

But if you’re often setting up meetings with new people — people whose calendars you don’t know — and in a variety of locations, there’s a good chance you go through this sort of thing, too. The process requires too many steps and too much cognitive work, and because you’ve got to account for information like location and travel time, it’s difficult to automate.

This piece reminded me of my recent begging for the same thing, more or less, although I was sketching out a possible implementation:

Stowe Boyd, Solving an age-old problem, Acompli integrates calendar with email

I was talking about this by email yesterday with the Michael Galpert, the CEO of Super.cc, and I suggested this scenario:

[Super.cc could] Come up with a better way to schedule meetings with multiple people, or multiple meetings in the same timeframe. As just one use case: imagine I would like to schedule meetings for a several day trip to SF, and I would like to set up meetings on (let’s say) Tu, We, and Th for companies X, Y, Z, A, B, and C. I’d like a system where I could hand this over to a bot that would do the following:

  1. Would read the emails I create suggesting possible meetings, and note that there is possible contention. 2. Would read emails proposing times, and would ‘pencil’ them into the calendar (perhaps a ¿ and ? at the start and end).
  2. As I start to accept proposed dates/times, it would convert penciled to ink, and send emails under my name to others who had not yet responded updating them on now-unavailable times. 4. If two or more parties request the same time, I could pick one, and the others would be informed that the time was no longer available, along with information about other available/unavailable times.

Sounds like Magneto’s solution is something like that of Acompli, that I discussed in the above post. Their approach is to share a rendering of your Thursday, or the next three days, that the recipient(s) can see, and they send back some suggested times, captured as boxes on the calendar rendering. You then pick a convenient time. Sounds good.

This is an example of us passing over a critical inflection point: when we are sharing calendar possibilities with more people that we don’t share a common calendaring server with, we need a better way to coordinate. And that seems to be coming to the fore right now, which could explain all of these new calendaring apps coming out of the woodwork.

Boomerang Calendar cuts through the scheduling mess

Scheduling meetings is perhaps the biggest heat loss in the world of business. The give and take of times, alternatives, trying to deal with many people with different calendars and timezones… it’s a mess and there doesn’t seem to be any convention or system to solve it. Considering how many people use Gmail and Google calendar I’ve been expecting that Google — who is building autonomous cars and the world’s most popular search engine — would figure it out. But they haven’t really tried.

However, Baydin has built what Google should have into its Boomerang Calendar, a plugin for Chrome and Firefox browsers.

First of all, when you get email from others suggesting a possible time for a meeting, Boomerang recognizes the timestamp, and displays the timestamp in a red/green/yellow code: red is a conflict, green is go, and yellow indicates an adjacent meeting.

times

If you hover over a detected timestamp, Boomerang shows a full day’s calendar.

The best features are yet to come, however. You can send the next few days of your calendar in an email to one or more other folks, which shows free and busy times.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 12.06.44

Note that as your schedule changes, this embedded calendar is always updated, so the recipients will see changes as they happen.

Alternatively, you can suggest a time for a meeting while editing the email, and send that along. Here you see the interface before selecting a time:

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 12.07.29

And here’s afterward, with a proposed time. Note that multiple times can be selected, and these time slots can be marked as ‘maybe’ in your calendar, and once you pick a time, the other tentatives times are deleted in one click.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 12.08.45

 

The Bottom Line

The solution to the tentative time slots offered up for possible meetings and the ability to pick a single proposed time — and deleting no longer relevant tentative times — is going to be a godsend for me. And I bet for nearly everyone else that juggles a busy schedule. As just an example, the calendar in the last screen shot above leaves out the five or six other calls and meetings that I am trying to coordinate with others, all buried in email threads, and in several cases, possibly leading to conflicts. Boomerang is going to save me a great deal of friction in the ceaseless grind of coordinating meetings and calls.

If Boomerang saves only a few minutes per meeting I would judge it a great win, but the amount of energy wasted in this way is probably several times that.

The only remaining question is why doesn’t Google just buy Baydin and roll Boomerang into Google Calendar?

Smartsheet is a social tool with an image problem

Smartsheet is a really fascinating social tool, but because of its resemblance to a spreadsheet and the omission of some key user experience, the power and utility of the application may not be immediately evident, even to long-time users.

Smartsheet seems a lot like Google Drive’s spreadsheet. However, the data that is managed in smartsheets’ cells  and the visibility and access controls across the product is unlike what goes on in Google spreadsheets. For example, a Smartsheet can manage tasks, each of which which can be assigned to specific users. Start and end dates can be included, which can be displayed as Gantt charts or in calendar views. Here’s a template of a project with task dependencies, for example.

gannt

 

The view that is glaringly missing from Smartsheet is the activity stream, a collation of all recent activities in all smartsheets a user has access to. Without that — which is the dominant social metaphor nowadays — users will have to visit each smartsheet and inspect them to discover what has been updated.

Supporting Cooperative Work

Hidden in the visibility and access controls of Smartsheet is an interesting find. The design allows for a very rich sort of cooperative work. For example, I can create one smartsheet with 20 columns of data, some of which I want to share, and some I want to remain confidential. Smartsheet supports linking the values in one or more columns into columns in another smartsheet. So I could share the names and resumés of job candidates, for example, by linking to those columns into a shared spreadsheet, but not linking the column with salary history.

By extension, there can be a sprawling network of information managed in dozens, hundreds or thousands of smartsheets can be networked together, with information shared in a fragmented pattern, radiating outward, and being mixed with other local information. Consider something really distributed, like organizing the Olympics, where thousands of individual companies might be sharing core information managed by the Olympic organizing committee, like dates, locations, and core responsibilities, and then each organization could take that public data, and add their own personal information in secondary smartsheets, and share that in a dozen different ways with subcontractors and internal departments.

In such a system there is no master, centralized control: it’s a fully distributed but interconnected network of information intended to coordinate that activities of many, many people, but it works on a networked, pull basis. And those people can be very loosely connected: perhaps the smartsheet information is all that’s needed. Note that Smartsheet supports a version of its tool that integrates with Mechanical Turk for crowdsourcing small tasks, for example.

The tool has a very rich capability around form-based information capture, so users can create Smartsheet-based forms, post them externally, like on a website, and capture data as inputs to business activities. For example, job applicants could fill in a form with basic information, and submit a file attachment with a resumé. That information is captured in a smartsheet, and then cascade into an application review smartsheet with an evaluation checklist.

But the presentation of smartsheets — looking like standalone spreadsheets, and with the linkages and access information concealed in record and sheet-level metadata — conceals the latent power of this tool. So, I think Smartsheet needs to also create a presentation of the network of sheets. For example, if I have created a collection of 25 smartsheets with links between them, I would like to be able to visualize those connections, like a mindmap or an entity-relationship diagram. And perhaps even manipulate them in that view.

The Bottom Line

The dominance of the spreadsheet metaphor in Smartsheets is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it immediately understandable to people who may have been managing projects in spreadsheets, but it also conceals the tool’s hidden capabilities for cooperative work. Until the user experience is amped up to better support that, Smartsheet will be considered just a slightly more powerful spreadsheet, and that’s a shame.

Timetastic: A small and simple HR app

I am a big fan of small and simple apps: apps that do one thing well. Timetastic is an amazingly simple app to help workgroups keep track of vacation time.

You simply invite everyone to sig up for the app, each person puts in their planned vacation time, and then all the data is displayed as either a wall chart (like below) or a calendar. That’s it.