Archive for the ‘Web Technology’ Category

Table Based Collaboration

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

I’ve been supporting our department wiki for many years now.  The most used feature is basic rich text, as you would expect, but the next most popular feature is tables.

Over time, I’ve identified a particular kind of collaborative function that people engage in when they are coordinating activities.  I don’t have a good name for activity, but I’ll call it “table based collaboration”.

In some corporate cultures this is till done by sending giant Excel spreadsheets around as email attachments.  This is the main option available when collab services (like wikis) are not available or practical for all the participants.  In this model, the owner of the process owns the spreadsheet makes the updates based on email received from the participants.

A more collaborative approach uses any form of wiki to create tables on wiki pages.  Depending on the data, it’s also possible to use a bulleted list format instead of a table, but the data itself and collaboration process is the same.  There’s a big jump in ease of use if the wiki supports rich text table editing.

I’ve tried about a half-dozen different wiki implementations of tables, and none of the rich text table editors are worth using in a produciton environment.  As soon as you do any kind of formatting, the entire table converts from wiki-syntax to raw html.  And after that point, the first formatting bug (that can’t be fixed by the rich text editor) becomes impossible to correct by direct-editing.

The lack of decent rich text table editing means that you need to stick with the wiki-syntax for tables, and edit them by hand.  This is workable, but forces the participants to have passable fluency in the wiki syntax and whatever foibles it has.

Another way of enacting table based collaboration is to use an actual database with a simple web interface.  We have several examples of this in my organization.  It’s generally implemented using an off-the-shelf database of some kind.  By definition, the table never needs to be joined with anything, and there’s only a single table.  If your “table based collaboration” sprouts any extra tables, then it turns into a “department web application” and it falls outside the realm of this discussion.

There are an endless supply of web application frameworks which have an simple process for creating a simple web app.  But the process of creating it still requires the owner of the process to learn the framework and generate the web app.  It also requires someone to set up and maintain the web application itself.  These solutions are not suitable for having a non-web-technical person set up a new table.

If you look at each of these mechanisms, each one has pros and cons.  Factors to look at are: 1) Does it require centralized infrastructure? 2) What are the platform/tool requirements placed on the participants?  The leader?

In the final analysis, I think something like a Google Docs spreadsheet provides a sweet spot of accessibility, formating and overhead.  Unfortunately, it’s not appropriate for a department-level solution.  Using Google Apps for proprietary company data needs to be approved as a company-wide policy, you can’t just download it and start using it.  Approving it for use for company business is appropriate for some companies, and not for others.

What I’ve been looking for is a web-application that allows end users to define a set of columns using basic types (string, date, enumeration, etc) and provides a simple spreadsheet-like interface for adding/removing/modifying data.

I’ve been so frustrated recently that I’ve been thinking about recommending that people go back to mailing around OpenOffice spreadsheets.  Some general purpose wikis get by with less-than-ideal behavior when two people make updates at the same time. So, in some cases the collaborative aspect of the solution (like wiki tables) costs more in synchronization headaches than what it would cost to have one person do all the updates.


OpenOffice loses this round

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I use spreadsheets every now and then for pretty trivial things.  Recently I’ve been using google docs spreadsheets because they were online and editable from different locations easily.  A few days ago I tried to use OpenOffice for a fairly simple sheet.  I’ve used OpenOffice on and off for years and years without ever becoming a power user.  After 30 minuets of trying to work with my very simple data, I realized I’d spent 28 minutes trying to figure out how to do basic operations that I took for granted in google spreadsheets. So here are the first few things I tried to do that were not as simple as they need to be:

1) Create a header row.

In OpenOffice, this is a “Window” option, and you find it under “Window -> Freeze”.  In google, I don’t even remember doing it, I think it just happened automatically somehow. (Addition: Even after using Window->Freeze, when sorting you still have to check the hidden box “Range contains column headers”)

2) sort rows by the value in a chosen column.

In google docs, when you hover over a column header, you get a pull down arrow that lets you choose A-Z or Z-A. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.  In OpenOffice, there is a prominent A-Z icon in the toolbar which does something stupid. (Sort the selected column regardless of other data).  The sort rows feature is under “Data -> Sort” and brings up a popup to configure the sort.  More than I needed.

3) reorder columns

In google docs I just drag a column left or right where I want it.  In OpenOffice the only way I found was to copy the data out of column, add a new column, and paste the data into the new column.

It would seem that spreadsheets are for manipulating tables of data, and it seems that there are many more small tables in the universe than large tables.  So why not optimize for quick and simple operations that casual users do all the time?

I guess I’ll stick with google docs for now.

Twitter needs to be commoditized.

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Twitter needs to be commoditized. What do I mean by that? I mean that the Twitter message streams need to interoperate with all my other message streams. Twitter is just a bunch of logical message streams from different people. I don’t really care if my messages are coming via twitter or RSS or IM.  Why?  I’ll tell you.

I variously use OpenSolaris, MacOS and Windows most every day, and Firefox/Thunderbird/OpenOffice is my common app platform.  So I’m using TwitterFox to keep up with twitter.  It’s very good as an entry level Twitter client, but now I’m tempted to use something I can customize a little more.  But I’ve already got daily messages coming through several other interfaces, and I don’t want another application.  All I want is access to the twitter message streams.

But wait, you say, twitter is different because you can read and respond instantaneously!  And it’s a multi-way conversation! And it’s limited to 140 characters! But is it really that different at heart from what’s come before? Thunderbird has little popup windows for new mail, and people frequently use email for nigh-instantaneous conversations.  Both IM and IRC are instantaneous and they support multi-way conversations. Why haven’t I heard more about IM and IRC gateways with Twitter? The vast majority of my IM and IRC messages are less than 140 characters, nothing new about that.

In my opinion, the defining feature of twitter is that the clients provide an all-in-one chatroom interface as the primary way of viewing the data, but you get to easily choose who’s in the chatroom.  That’s a feature that should already exist in IRC anyway, it’s just too painful to use in IRC clients.  Because twitter is frequently updated, it grabs people’s attention.  Because it grabs their attention, interactive conversations are facilitated.  So that’s the essence of Twitter: It’s a global chatroom where you subscribe to the people you want in it.  But that’s just a kind of user interface, it’s not inherent to the data feed.

Some of the people I follow on Twitter provide good technical tips and pointers. Some of them are personal friends, some post links to “cool stuff”.  Some of them post frequently, some of them post infrequently. Hmmmm, this is sounding like a breakdown of my various email-based filtered inboxes, and RSS reader tags, and my IM contact categories.

The message clients I use most these days are:

  • Cellphone SMS
  • RSS via Google reader (I use multiple computers remember)
  • gmail (for personal email)
  • thunderbird (for work email)
  • Pidgin (IM, multiple accounts, work and personal servers, some IRC)

So why do I need another one?  The ones with the best features for managing message streams are gmail and any RSS reader. What I’d really like is one application that can manage all those message streams for me, and cross link them.  Anyone want to write me one?

For my own purposes, it would be easiest if this application was a program that could be run as a hosted service.  That makes it easy for it to be cross platform, like Google Reader.  But I’m not supposed to access work email except from approved sources, so having an app server read my work email for me is out. For that reason a complete solution would probably need to be a client-based app.

I spend much more hands-on time reading that I do writing.  So I’m prepared to completely blow off the integrated message creation parts, I’m just talking about reading here. It can just just bring up Thunderbird to send email, or bring up to update my twitter feed. The app would need to be able to read and correlate all the message stream technologies I’ve mentioned so far, and allow me to sort and group the various messages streams mixed together.  I have a “friends” folder in my work email that has a small number social emails.  I’d like that one folder from my work IMAP to be grouped with all my personal gmail folders.  I’d like to have views based on people, so that I can see all the messages streams from my buddy Ken, regardless of where they came from (IM, GMail, IMAP, Twitter, and don’t forget SMS and IRC).  I don’t need it to connect all his accounts together, I can configure that.

Some of the message streams are things I’d like to promote to “pop-up” status, so a browser add-on component that talks to the client would be nice.  (Or just use the desktop native pop-up mechanism).

I’m subscribed to fair number of high volume email lists at work, and I filter them off into separate email inboxes.  This works ok, but I’d really rather be reading those in an RSS reader, not an email app.  The user interface is structured in a more appropriate way in RSS readers.

Oh, and don’t forget NNTP.  I don’t use any NNTP streams right now because they require yet another client.  Even using thunderbird for NNTP pulls up a completely separate UI mode in thunderbird.  I’d totally love it if thunderbird had kill-files for IMAP messages, but it doesn’t yet.  By kill-files I mean: “type K to automatically junk all future emails in this thread”.  I don’t mean:  Set up a special filter with a special window and select subject line, and copy/paste the subject line, and remember to go back and prune your old filters, and remember to apply the filter to the specific folder you’re looking at.

In my head it’s a very simple interface, you just zoom in and zoom out on your message streams.  If you zoom all the way in on one blog post, you get a stream starting with the original post, and followed by all the comments. If you zoom out, you’ll see all the posts in the blog, but none of the comments.  Zoom out again, and you see a sample of all the posts in that category of your RSS reader.  The organization is a tree, but it’s heavily cross-linked.  Message streams show up in more than one place. I can start at the top of “all work email”, then drill down to my “work/social” folder, then go sideways to all “social” streams, then drill down to a thread with Ken, then drill sideways (eg by clicking on Ken’s name) to all message streams where Ken participates, etc, etc. Nodes in the tree are automatically created according to the structure of the underlying sources, but I get to create additional nodes that combine the data from other preexisting nodes. I can also create additional nodes by creating keyword search of filters on existing nodes.

Oh well, one day when I retire I’ll get a chance to work on it.  Until then, I’ll just keep bitching.  Someone please get cracking on this.  🙂 If it works right I’d pay a lot of money for it.