Saturday, July 24, 2010

Goldilocks and the Share Bears

Working together on shared information has been goal of the software industry since ... forever. How hard can that be?

Very. The easiest way to share information is simply to give it to someone.  Consider three models:
  • Collaboration suites (SharePoint or Groove) or earlier portals (Plumtree)
  • FTP sites
  • Plain Old File Servers and their WAN cousins (DropBox, SkyDrive)
Sharepoint/portal porridge is too hot. They're great for building corporate departmental sites to contain and control information. They are, however, highly interactive, require developers and administrators to set up and manage, and have an overwhelming number of layout and design options. It's hard to simply put and find stuff with all the interface noise and clutter. Without a design and set-up, they're inert.

FTP porridge is too cold. Users must look whether files are new or old, and working with info means pulling files down to the local desktop. MS Windows can set up an FTP server as a folder in the file system, making it look like a local file set, but files on the servers don't behave the same way as true local files, access times notwithstanding. FTP is close, but clunky.

POFSes pretty much win. DropBox porridge is juuuuuust right. Set up is trivial, accounts are generous (how do these guys make money?), and files sync across dozens and dozens of machines among self, family, and friends, automagically, in the background. That's why DropBox, after several years in business, is finally getting traction in the consumer geek press this summer.

POFSes, done right, just work. They work the way people expect "sharing files" to work. No fancy interface like Groove (which did the same magic file sync), no setting up torrents, no DAV exposed, no "file sharing" monkeying around. Open the folder, work on the file, close the folder. Everyone else sees the same stuff. Just like on a LAN or your own computer.

The Real Problem

People have spent nearly 30 years in WIMP GUIs shuffling info around inside folder/file hierarchies. That's nearly 30 years of unlearning to do.

POFSes also map onto the physical sense of place. The language used to describe actions is place-oriented: "I put the file [over] there"; "she stuck it in this folder here"; "where did you save the sales report?" The notion of place is hard-wired into humans' physical selves.  Even Hansel in "Zoolander" gets it: "The Files are in the Computer."

Chopping information in weblets or interposing app/applets further confuses place with action. Applets add needless extra steps: the resource must first be found, then asked to divulge information. Sticking extra software or processes into the task mix is valuable when that software add control over detail, such as when sharing a calendar. Extra pages, links, access methods, etc, are annoying when the shared items are will understood and their normal operation is familiar, e.g. "open this PDF brochure."

Fixing the Design

Work with what people know. That's one of the basic tenants of good design, along with "don't reinvent the wheel". Trite, but true.

Follow the principle of least surprise. There are no surprises when sharing files in Dropbox. FTP shares as folder extensions have a nasty surprise: opening the file in the folder can cause the file handle to go stale. Saving the file returns a user-surly message which is unhelpful for resolving the problem. It's a message never seen when using "plain old files" on the computer.

Where problems do occur, help fix them. Dropbox users will have problems with conflicting edits. Dropbox doesn't try to resolve conflicts automatically. The system nicely labels conflicted files with the name of the person whose write caused the collision, so folks can call each other to work it out. This model works because conflicts are relatively rare, fewer than 2% of the accesses by my tests.

Drop-dead installation is the icing on the cake. Setting up an FTP or shared portal requires fiddling with logins and credentials on both ends, more with complex controls for permissions and access guards to secured areas. Dropbox pushes this responsbility out and uses a simplified UNIX-like sharing model: me, my friends, everyone else. Easy and done.


Groove Virtual Office

Setting up FTP folders on MS Windows

Dropbox review: File synching for your Mom at Techwizbackup