Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Moving to the Resource Paradigm (or, computer files are so 1990s!)

We're all familiar with files. Most of our computers are full of them - documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, pictures. Those of us in more technical fields will also add things like source code files, CAD files, vector drawings and the like. Whatever the type of file, it encapsulates a single thing or piece of work. But I would argue that this 'file paradigm' stands in the way of productivity and effective collaboration. 

Some background then. Three of my projects currently involve document management in one form or another. Broadly, this is about managing the process of writing a document between a group of people. This might be the formal editorial review process of a publishing house, or something more informal like a committee coming up with a new set of professional guidelines.

But what they all have in common is that several people need to work on the same document, sometimes at different stages, sometimes together where each is working on a different section. They need a version history, and they need a way of commenting on or discussing changes to the document.

So, how does this work in practice? We're all familiar with the 'email' version of document collaboration. Jane writes the first draft, and emails it to Pete and Sarah who review it. Pete writes a load of comments and emails it to the other two, meanwhile Sarah writes a whole new section and emails it to the others, along with her comments. Now there are three versions floating around in email. Jane incorporates the comments and additions from the others as best she can, and sends another version for them to review. Pete thinks it's ready for management to take a look at so he emails it to Emma, who sends back a load more comments. And so on. In a very short space of time there are lots of versions of the original document floating around and it may not be clear which is the latest.

Add in a bit of document management and you will have all versions of the file being checked in to a central repository. It should be easy to see which is the current version, and who changed what, and they will (hopefully) have made some comments about their changes. But we are still working with files. Versions of the file need to be downloaded for people to open and work on them, and this makes it a) difficult for two people to work on the document at the same time, and b) means there are still various versions of the document strewn about people's computers. Also it's quite likely that at some stage someone will email a copy of the file to someone else...

What we need to do is to ditch the file paradigm entirely. Now, granted that doesn't quite work for everything, an image is an image for example. But for documents, spreadsheets and the like that are written, often collaboratively, a better approach is to move to a shared resource, probably identified by a URL (which remember stands for uniform resource locator).

Confused? OK, you needn't be, it's actually quite simple - here's an example. I am writing this post on Blogger, which is Google's blogging platform. At the top of my browser is a URL which uniquely identifies the resource that is this blog post. It is;postID=57130144964987853

Now, if you follow that link, you will actually get an 'access denied' message (I checked before including it!). But if I gave you access to it, you'd be able to edit it also. And of course you'd also be able to find it through the Blogger user interface and the mobile app. Just for fun (ok I need to get out more), I wrote the last sentence on my tablet, then switched back to my PC.

So here's the point, this blog post is not a file sitting somewhere on my PC. It is a resource that lives on Google's blogging platform that can be accessed by anyone I give access to, anywhere they choose. Google Docs takes this a couple of steps further, by both allowing people to make changes to a document at the same time, and by tracking the revision history. Their main competitors in this space, Microsoft Office 365 and Zoho, also offer similar features.

Of course, with the likes of Google Docs and Office 365, you have to trust the cloud storage provider and the recent revelations of the extent to which they're spied upon might well put you off. There are other options such as OwnCloud which you can run on your own server, but they aren't quite mature yet. A lot of the corporate solutions, such as Quark, are still very much focussed on files rather than resources.

Most of us aren't quite ready to ditch our office suite yet because the alternatives aren't all quite there yet. But as anyone who has experienced the simplicity of sharing and collaborating on a Google Doc will know, the resource paradigm will definitely make working easier. My prediction? In 10 years files will pretty much only be used for static media files and the like, everything else will be resources stored in the cloud.