For remote collaboration, Google Apps still can't be beat

Successful team meetings require input from everyone. When you can't be in the same room, Google Hangouts and Google Drawings offer an effective virtual alternative

people in videoconference meeting
Credit: Corbis

If you work in tech, you're probably familiar with a common way to facilitate a team meeting.

Everyone is given a pad of yellow Post-it notes and a small sheet of green sticky dots. At the start of the exercise, each person writes down a few possible topics, one per Post-it note, and sticks their Post-it notes on a wall.

In the next phase, everybody walks over to the wall and arranges the notes in clusters. Finally, people vote on which topics to discuss by putting sticky dots on the appropriate clusters. It's any effective way to discover what the team has on its collective mind and, thus, how the team's precious "together time" can be used best.

My team uses this method to conduct our bimonthly retrospective. We reflect on what went well or not so well during the preceding two-week sprint and what unresolved questions arose. Here's a picture of our wall:

Google Drawing/Google Hangout Jon Udell

As you can see, that isn't really a picture of a wall. It's a screenshot of the Google Drawing that simulates the wall, the Post-its, and the sticky dots. We are in Budapest, Berlin, Edinburgh, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Rosa. Our get-together is a Google Hangout -- and that Google Drawing is our wall.

Getting together in meatspace would be better, for sure. That usually isn't an option for us, but this method, augmented with videoconferencing in a Google Hangout, simulates the real exercise more effectively than I would have guessed.

Our small startup is all-in with Google: Gmail, Groups, Docs, Drive, Hangouts, Calendar, the works. The contrast with Microsoft's competitive offerings is instructive. When I worked there, I used and championed Microsoft's cloud office suite and watched it improve quite dramatically. It has evolved into a powerful companion to the desktop office suite. But for the most part that is a well-kept secret. I have rarely received an invitation to collaborate on a document in Microsoft's cloud office. The exceptions were invitations from other Microsoft employees, and they were few and far between.

In theory you can now use Microsoft's cloud office to do what people take for granted in Google's cloud office: Enter a shared online space, co-edit a document, discuss and track revisions. The same set of features exists in both platforms, more or less. But the two platforms aspire to very different goals.

Microsoft aims for a cloud experience that delivers the full fidelity of the desktop applications, to the extent possible. Google never had desktop applications. It was born in the cloud. Synchronous collaboration in shared online spaces is woven into its DNA, and its Web applications cannot help but reflect that.

Microsoft's applications, on the other hand, were born on the PC, then grafted to the local area network. Synchronous collaboration in shared online spaces wasn't, and still isn't, woven into its DNA. The bread-and-butter collaboration tool at Microsoft is still Outlook. My use of the term "shared space" harks back to Groove, the collaboration platform that Microsoft acquired along with its erstwhile chief software architect Ray Ozzie. The antibodies swimming around in Microsoft's immune system rejected both.

I'm bullish on the New Microsoft. It has finally let go of the nostalgic "Windows everywhere" mantra and faced up to two realistic goals: Make software for all the computers that people really use, and make computers that people want to run that software on.

That's necessary but not sufficient to turn the corner as needed. The last mile? Recognize that the new mantra, productivity, requires systems optimized for people working together in shared spaces. I hope that happens -- because Google needs a competitor.

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