The Myth of Real-time Collaborative Authoring

In the document management field there has been a succession of products designed to support users working on a document at the same time, even if they are in different locations. These products have failed. They have failed because people don't work on documents together very often.

I wonder where the belief in concurrent creation of documents came from. In the physical world you seldom see people saying, "Come to my office and we'll write a document together," so why expect users to want to do it virtually?

Documents may well be created to summarize a brainstorming session or record the minutes of a general meeting, but the designated author usually 'goes away' to somewhere quiet to write the first draft.

Even in the review phase, reviewers independently make comments, suggestions and edits at different times. The author then pulls these together to make a revised version. Email is no different, especially since emails of any length are essentially documents.

Sure the stepwise, asynchronous approach to content authoring and review takes place over a longer period, but it actually makes best use of each participant's time, and is therefore more efficient overall.

I started to think about this again with yesterday's announcement that Google Wave will not be further developed (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/update-on-google-wave.html). As the blog post says, Google Wave was, "...a web app for real time communication and collaboration". For the purposes of this discussion let's consider both collaboration and communication independently.

Collaboration in Authoring

A technical tour-de-force, Wave enabled users to see others changing content as they themselves changed it. Very cool, but actually disconcerting. I wouldn't have wanted you to have watched me author this blog post, for several reasons:

  • I'm easily distracted and need to concentrate to develop some cohesive thoughts
  • While writing I jump around adding sections, changing others, moving text blocks – it would be hard to follow and I'd have to explain what I was doing which would further slow me down and distract me
  • I'm the World's worst typist

I'm probably no different than most people, at least regarding the first two points. And perhaps more lethal to the concept of concurrent authoring:

  • You'd get bored – it takes far longer to author a document than read it, and you'd probably want to be doing something else while I work, preferring to comment on my finished work

And that's the crux of the matter – most people are busy, with many demands on their time, and collaborative authoring is just too inefficient.

Communication Delays are Good

While Wave was designed for collaboration, it was also intended for communication (see quotation above). Essentially email and instant messaging rolled into one. But I think there is a problem there too – most people actually don't want to use real-time communication!!

Many commentators have remarked on the tendency for young people to use their mobile phones for text messaging far more than as telephones. You'd think it would be easier to engage in a conversation by talk rather than typing, so why is texting preferred?

I think people prefer texting because it allows them to be engaged in many, independent conversations with different people. For this to work they need to be able to send and receive messages in real time, but also need an agreed expectation that replies may take several minutes. Awkward silences of several minutes on a phone aren't agreeable, and since voice isn't cached locally like a text message you have to listen to each voice channel concurrently – which isn't practical.

Interestingly while they are short, both mobile text messages and instant messages (IM) are generally only sent when they are completed. It is usually enough to see that the recipient is typing (i.e. with Instant Messaging) or to just assume that they are (i.e. with texting). All stumbles, pauses, and corrections are not sent – but they were with Google Wave.


With small pieces of content: true real-time communication is often undesirable, with near real-time being better.

With larger pieces of content: collaborative authoring is best done asynchronously.

Collaborative authoring seems to be something that IT professionals believe will lead to greater efficiencies, while end users don't have the time for it!


  1. My colleague Lubor posted his perspective on the implications of Wave's demise on enterprise content management http://luborp.blogspot.com/2010/08/wave-that-really-was-ripple.html

  2. Great post as always Martin. I find it interesting that the concept of the "conversation" (a la text message or IM) is probably more truly "collaborative" authoring in that you are collectively authoring tacit understanding in bursts - kind of like the creative process you describe writing blogs. The idea that this final understanding has to be documented somewhere and in some different order perhaps (e.g., as meeting notes but perhaps as something more compelling than just the transcript), is as you say, the real asynchronous activity that's required. I think it's ultimately a question of what particular use case collaboration falls under too. There's still merit and value in the idea of people say, drawing on a whiteboard together to co-create and cement understanding, for example. Of course, I may just be biased on the topic of Real Time collaboration... just sayin'. :D

  3. great analysis Martin. I agree completely even though I am (was...sigh) an avid user of Google Wave. I complained a lot about the exact same things you mention and only used it for local creation of content, very little for collaboration or communication. The third part of wave which most people ignore was that it was essentially a super flexible google docs without the unnecessary idiom that you were editing a 'document' which will eventually be printed onto a piece of paper with margins etc.

    I still prefer email and text messaging to IM for exactly the reasons you state, there is less assumption that a response will come right away so you have time to construct a response.

    The world would be a better place if everyone took a moment before they sent any communication (voice, text or otherwise) and considered its impact and what they really mean. Pushing people to every more real time communication will only decrease the quality of discussion.

  4. Martin, we here at PleaseTech agree with you. We have always believed that the 'watch while I type' co-authoring which Google offered was not what the market wanted. The enterprise market is all about control and time efficiency. Thus eliminating the time consuming, menial tasks (i.e. copy and paste) is key to success. With the co-authoring capabilities of PleaseReview it's all about control over 'who can do what to where' in the document and eliminating the need for the master author to copy and paste individual offerings. So, if the document is co-authored, individuals will be responsible for individual sections and want to 'go away somewhere quietly' to write their bit. PleaseReview just manages that process and eliminates the need for the labour intensive menial tasks which traditionally accompany the process.