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Concurrent / Collaborative Editing

Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. In other words, the more people using something, the more valuable that thing is.

My first few computers in the 1980s were islands, completely isolated from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until Prodigy and CompuServe that I realized there were other people in the world like me. My first modem was a 1200 baud. I think my dad paid $400 for it. Later, I was one of the first 1000 members of America Online which brought usability and graphics into the mix. Mainly, I used AOL to download software and modifications for my Windows 3.1 PC with a 286 chip.

The value of the computer rose exponentially with the access to other people.

Enter the internet. Obviously this blew away anything AOL could muster. I started working from my apartment with my then girlfriend. We had no Ethernet network so we would just throw floppy disks at each other around a large potted plant. We called our system FloppyNet.

During this time, I played online text games called MUDs. The cool thing was that there were other people in the game and you could see their moves as quickly and you saw your own. (“see” = see their words, it had no graphics) However, It was a multiplayer experience and I loved it.

After I started Koko Interactive in 1995 (a web dev company in NYC), we could finally afford a real network, but almost all of our software was still single player. Think Photoshop. One person opens it up and uses it and then outputs the results to a shared drive. My first product, Hotkoko, was an attempt to make a system through the browser where multiple people could work on something together.

Still, the system was limited. You had to refresh the screen to see updates. I wanted the real-time interactivity of the MUD with the GUI of the browser. Some games started popping up that you could play games in this manner like Second Life. However, for work related stuff, it just wasn’t there. Apps like Salesforce would (and still do) require refreshing the browser. Games moved forward, but work apps stayed behind.

It wasn’t until 2006 that I saw Writely and then Google Docs. Right in front of my eyes you could see the other people working. You saw their cursor, you saw their edits. It was a revelation. There is no doubt in my mind that Google Docs made huge inroads based exclusively on this feature. Microsoft had nothing similar and lost some market share and certainly some hearts/minds.

The technical capability in broadband access, computers and browsers has improved enough to allow for truly multiplayer experiences for work related applications. Last year, Figma became the first tool (to my knowledge) that allowed multiple designers to work on a project at the same time. Several people I know, who were die hard Sketch fans have embraced Figma in large part due to this feature. Designers previously thought, “Why would I need to design with another person?” are now embracing this new methodology. Adobe is working on a similar technology, albeit slowly.

I believe Pair Designing will start to gain traction to the levels that Pair Programming has in the last 15 years. Also, I can see more and more work applications adopting concurrent editing. Microsoft has made moves in that direction to make Office collaborative, even in the desktop. However, many other systems are slow to adopt the technology.

The reason for the slow adoption has to do with two factors. First, the technology is still not plug and play. There are some really good JavaScript libraries to get started, but the backend is not bullet proof yet. I have tried 3 different times to make concurrency work and have been stymied by the cost of the technology and the lack of commitment by product leaders.

The more tools which appear with an unfair advantage based on concurrent editing, the more it will become common knowledge that this technology is a key value driver. The more that happens, the more investment into the technology. It might sound like a chicken and egg situation, but I think it will get better at an exponential rate. We have Metcalfe’s law on our side.

We are still in the early days, but this design choice is compelling. It will get more popular over time. It takes some more effort to design, but the results are worth it.

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