What TimeDance got right

The loss of this powerful online meeting and collaboration tool leaves a vacuum to fill

Most of the meetings I schedule cross organizational borders and doing so is always a painful process. Everyone feels the same pain to one degree or another and has felt it for years. Ad-hoc collaboration across borders is at the core of the agile enterprise’s mission, but we still lack the tools to do it easily and effectively.

When a recent scheduling negotiation turned into a flurry of e-mail, as invariably happens, I asked, “Does anyone remember TimeDance?” Several folks did, and we paused for a moment of somber reflection.

I summed up the virtues of TimeDance in a report on Internet groupware back in 2000. In a nutshell, it was an application that made it easy to create and use disposable shared spaces. A TimeDance shared space had tools to negotiate when and where to meet, such as polling and RSVP. More importantly, it collected the message traffic related to that negotiation, encouraged an orderly transition from e-mail to shared discussion, gathered related information (maps, supporting documents), and served as a communication buffer.

I call this set of functions “context assembly,” a phrase I picked up from Groove co-founder Jack Ozzie. When collaboration devolves to the common denominator of e-mail, every participant has to weave context around an otherwise chaotic stream of messages, and there’s no canonical view. Context assembly in disposable shared spaces is the essence of Groove, and in that sense TimeDance was very Groove-like.

Unlike Groove, though, TimeDance had universal reach. I have never encountered a diverse group whose members were all willing and able to use Groove. Today, its entry barrier remains about where it was five years ago. For a Web-based application like TimeDance, though, the barrier is now even lower than it once was.

Lightweight single sign-on is one reason why. Nic Wolff’s clever bookmarklet-based solution has been a life-changer. Managing yet another password was the main obstacle in the way of adopting disposable services on the Web. Now a single pass phrase generates unique and strong passwords, no secrets are stored locally, and the master secret never travels over the wire. As a result, new services seem frictionless.

Another factor is RSS. In order to reserve e-mail for higher-order interpersonal work, I monitor machine-generated alerts in my RSS reader whenever I can. A 2005 iteration of TimeDance would surely support that option.

Clearly this column is a plea for someone to resurrect TimeDance. I’m aware of several calendar- and event-oriented Web startups, including EVDB and Trumba, but these don’t seem to place ad-hoc shared spaces at the centers of their missions. My guess is that we’ll see new entrants take on that challenge soon.

Meanwhile, of course, Groove is being absorbed into Microsoft. How the two collaboration suites will mesh is anybody’s guess, but here’s my suggestion: When uniting Groove and SharePoint, make sure that anyone can create a borderless and administratorless shared space. Also make sure that anyone using any modern browser can join and have a rich experience. In that regard, Outlook Web Access — an early and still leading example of the AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) style of application development — points the way.

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