Bill Gates recently made a speech at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum (GLF) Europe 2006 in Lisbon, Portugal. The complete transcript is here. Below I’ve highlighted excerpts that I found interesting along with reflections on how Bill’s comments apply to communication and collaboration trends in the industry.
“Let me focus on some basic activities in the knowledge economy, and how those can be made more efficient. I talked about the phone and getting rid of phone numbers and simply connecting up to a user essentially by picking them from a contact list or an e-mail name list. Actually, in some cases you'll just have pictures of people and point there, but the fundamental idea is that you won't have a special string of numbers, and you won't have to think about which phone the person has, because their presence information will be registered with a software service, and so the ability to find them whether they're at home, whether they're on the road with a particular mobile phone, at some office that they're in, all of those things can be handled by the software.”
The vision that Microsoft has when it comes to integrated communications is non-linear and important to understand in terms of its derivative impact on hardware, networks and software trends across many markets (e.g., consumer, gaming, home entertainment and enterprise). It surpasses the so-called vision of most communication vendors who simply are failing to think more innovatively in terms of the transformational impact the next generation of real-time communication software, services and platforms will have on how people are connected, whether it’s in regard to work practices, personal lifestyles or the myriad of social interactions that increasingly crisscross both worlds.
As we steadily evolve towards a real-time communications model that assumes pervasive connectivity across devices and form factors (with mobility as the norm rather than the exception), fundamental design, deployment and usage models need to be revisited. Many vendors in the market today are merely taking the existing telephone model and upgrading it to an Internet-centric environment. We can argue about Microsoft’s ability to execute, its ability to initially deliver solid products and services and the manner in which it conducts itself in the market, but the company really does “get” the vision-thing. Entrenched vendors need to consider a radically different approach to communications, communication-enabled applications and collaboration. Otherwise, they will collapse, perhaps slowly over time, but their core business model will no longer exist. Pathfinder companies such as Tello and Iotum come to mind as examples of vendors that are approaching this evolution in intriguing ways.
“In fact, the logic for whether that person wants to be interrupted or not will be based on identifying who the caller is, understanding what based on their schedule their activity is, and making that a very straightforward decision that depending on who it is they get connected, they get automatically scheduled for a nearby time, they get information about what you're doing; that is not every caller getting exactly the same thing, but it all being based on exactly what group you're in and the caller ID that comes out of that connection.”
Presence, location, identity and activity context comes to mind here in order to better understand the context and situational aspects of a conversation. This likely will require progress in areas related to monitoring agents, metadata, profiles, preferences and insight into one’s social networks (e.g., friend, co-worker, boss, spouse) while honoring privacy and confidentiality. It also requires users to better articulate how they wish to prioritize, filter and manage their attention around an activity, their selective availability to others and the manner in which they allow themselves to be interrupted. Ultimately, users need to decide how rigid or permeable the membrane we place around ourselves should be as we work or play, and make trade-offs when it comes to interacting with others (and that involves a lot of subjective assumptions on the part of technology).
“Today, when we think about electronic mail, it's a very separate thing from voicemail, voicemail systems are somewhat inefficient, and yet even this year the products that we come out with will unify these two ideas so that as you are replying to an e-mail, if you've got your phone it will be a very accepted thing to just simply dictate information into the phone, and that will show up for the user just like their normal e-mail. So there is a complete interchange, you'll be able to call up with your phone and have text to speech tell you about your messages, or you'll able to receive the voice messages, along with those text messages.”
What comes to mind here are the numerous transitions and transformations that need to be supported in order to have this type of information surfaced and resurfaced across a range of applications. I can imagine that you should be able to search and find chunks of information in voice messages or conference call recordings just like we can search for words within documents. I can imagine the ability to annotate a voice message just like I can annotate a document. Voice as a data type requires progress in areas of XML and so on. I can imagine voice messages from customers being stored just like other customer data (with all the proper security and privacy protections). Your voice will live on just like other data that you provide to companies.
“Even more important is the way we'll look at letting people work together. Today, often people are reluctant to use electronic mail because as soon as you use that, the ability to keep the information to a small group goes away, because it's so easy for it to be forwarded, there's no way to track and audit exactly where the information is flowing. Advances in e-mail coming out this year from us will actually make that a built-in feature so that when you start an e-mail you can say is this just for our financial executives, is this just for employees, is it for people who work on a certain project, or is it something that can be passed along without any restriction whatsoever. You can also indicate that you want to keep track of how that mail is forwarded and how that mail is used, and the recipient will be aware of that.”
There remains a lot of work to be done at the application layer of e-mail. I should be able to opt-out of a multi-party e-mail thread and opt back in at a later point if needed. I should be able to convert an e-mail thread easily into a workspace forum or perhaps a wiki environment if the conversation is better handled in that manner. I should be able to easily merge multiple e-mail, IM, and voice threads into a single thread that is not tool specific (similar to what IBM is attempting to achieve with Activity Explorer). I should be able to e-mail to a workspace and leverage RSS if I need to observe the conversation without being an active participant. So there are a lot of areas where we could make e-mail better.
“The biggest hole that we've had in terms of how people work together is in this area of collaboration. Today, people either use electronic mail or they use Web sites to collaborate as a group. E-mail is good because it can reach everybody, but then when you want to go back and forth quite a bit, some people more interested in every change than others, and if it's a rich set of information with some structure, e-mail with lots and lots of attachments is clearly an inferior way to do that.
What we need is the ability for an individual, very easily without contacting the IT department, to essentially create a Web site, and as they do that to decide, based on a set of templates, exactly what type of Web site it would be. You may have heard people talk about blogs and wikis as things that are flourishing on the Internet; those are ways that lots of people can contribute and comment on things, you can edit different things, see who is agreeing or disagreeing, and they're wonderful bottom's up tools. But none of those have been connected into the IT infrastructure in terms of auditing information flow, backing it up. And so as we take and build a single point of collaboration software, which in our case we call SharePoint, it will have every one of these templates built in, templates for all the kind of rich interaction that you want for a group type environment. Every process within the business, a review process, a sales analysis process, introducing a new product, tracking a project, all of those will have templates that can be edited on a very individual basis.”
We know that there are many instances where communication tools are inappropriately used for collaboration. Burton Group (Peter O’Kelly) has championed the idea of “channels for communication and workspaces for collaboration”. Workspaces make sense, especially for activity-centric collaboration where there is some formality and structure involved (perhaps project oriented, meeting/event planning, virtual classroom, virtual sales “war room” to prepare an RFP, etc.). And yes, there is the need for these types of facilities to be connected to IT infrastructure to satisfy security, compliance and other governance considerations. But there are many types of collaboration patterns that are loosely coupled where workspaces (as defined by SharePoint) might not be as desirable or even necessary. Wikis for instance offer a very powerful metaphor for collaborative authoring that in some cases is superior to using Word and its edit/comment/track changes mode or Adobe PDF and its annotation tool. I should be able to take a Word document and “save as Wiki”, work on the document in a flat space as a group and then reconstitute the document from the Wiki once group consensus has been reached.
There’s no doubt in my mind that blogs and wikis will soon be connected to IT infrastructure (IBM has talked about this at its recent Lotusphere event and has some technology available on its alphaWorks site) as the technology matures and is adopted by traditional enterprise content management and collaboration vendors. Interestingly enough, Microsoft’s own OneNote is gaining real-time capabilities that enable groups to share notes without the need for a Web site / SharePoint model. Tools such as Adobe/Macromedia’s Breeze Web conferencing platform offer a real-time alternative to an asynchronous workspace. That’s especially intriguing given Bill’s earlier comments on how the industry needs to think differently about real-time communications. So I totally agree that organizations are not gaining the productivity and process benefits offered by workspace technology. But there are many models of workspace software and users should understand the advantages and disadvantages each approach possesses and choose accordingly.