Collaborations New Age

The need for a generic e-mail client is fading as collaboration tools become integral parts of enterprise applications, writes eWEEK's Peter Coffee.

An e-mail application is the hub of many users lives, especially in the workplace, with action items coming in and work going out through that universal connector to the world.

Because it has to handle anything, an e-mail client indiscriminately accepts just about anything, hence our problems with mail-borne malware. Since its not an integral part of any application, an e-mail client fails to use task-specific knowledge of workflows or other information that would aid our management of knowledge, people and time.

The need for a generic e-mail client is fading, though, and not a bit too soon, as collaboration tools become integral parts of enterprise applications. Last week, for example, Autodesk announced its forthcoming AutoCAD 2005, which boasts collaboration and workflow features that transcend the products original role as an electronic drafting tool.

Instead of marking up a drawing and sending it to someone else as either a paper document or a flat image file, an AutoCAD 2005 user will be able to annotate the drawing electronically and transmit those annotations to whoever needs to act on them. The person receiving that input will be able to call up the original drawing, see how those comments relate to it and check to see if theyre still relevant to the current version of that drawing.

Heres the breakthrough, a word that I dont use lightly: Each separate annotation can become a threaded conversation, potentially involving several people or disciplines and providing the full support of a world-class CAD environment instead of layering half-baked tools on top of Notes or Microsoft Office. If youve ever tried to do anything of the kind using separate packages, such as a CAD tool and ordinary e-mail, youll realize what an improvement this represents. Instead of trying to tease the cumulative impact of several peoples comments out of the spaghetti bowl of an e-mail in-box, a user will be able to click on an entry in a project index file and see the relevant information in familiar markup form.

Data and devices can also take part in these task-centered interactions: for example, to automatically update standard details used by many different projects. The Sheet Set Manager functions, added in this release, can merge the latest project-specific information and generate a current composite on demand.

When I think of the times in my chemical-plant days that I had to look through multiple drawings, mentally assembling a composite view of a facility under construction, I have no doubt that this will improve the way that things get done.

Even if youre not involved in design and construction, think of the downstream effects of integrating real-world visualizations with live data.

When firefighters are entering an industrial facility, a wireless handheld display unit could determine the teams present location and show a 3-D perspective drawing, "ghosting" the walls to reveal the locations of hazardous structures like high-voltage lines or toxic-material pipelines.

A customer entering a food store could put together a dinner-party menu on a kiosk display, input the number of dinner guests, and get a shopping list and an annotated floor plan of the store to find and purchase the needed ingredients—with those instructions reflecting current information on price and availability of special promotional items. This goes way beyond a "preferred customer" e-mail newsletter, the current state of the art in customer communications.

My conversation with Autodesk came right on the heels of publisher Tim OReillys keynote speech at his Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, where his main message was that "the most successful killer applications are going to figure out how to have a social software aspect." E-mail, blogs and other tools, such as instant messaging, will soon seem as antique as the Sears household electric motor in the companys 1918 mail-order catalog. Just as any appliance that needs a motor now has its own, any application thats improved by collaboration—and arent they all?—will soon do it in a task-focused way.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at