People Powered: Content and Collaboration Combine Forces

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Creative Function
JotSpot, an application wiki company, believes the next step in the do-it-yourself continuum is to allow users to create, publish, and share collaborative and personalized applications. The idea is to take what users normally manage in a spreadsheet and make it simple for them to publish these things on the Internet as applications that can track projects, deals, contracts, and any number of tasks that involve group effort. 

"We empower people to create their own custom software and share it—without having to know how to write a single line of code," boasts Joe Kraus, JotSpot CEO and co-founder. The company essentially sits at the intersection of two trends: the growing popularity of document-wikis among companies and the move away from desktop applications and toward browser-based apps. 

"We call it ‘do-it-yourself application publishing' because our belief is that flat unstructured content has tremendous value when it is given structure and a place in workflow," Kraus explains. "We're focused on taking a piece of structured content—where there are fields or meaning to each column—and turning that into a Web-based application that gets all the benefits of being ‘wikified,' which means people can not only edit the content but also edit the structure of the application itself." 

To this end, JotSpot recently demo'd "one-click" application building, a feature it plans to release this fall. The functionality will enable users to convert any existing Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or Word document into a "personalized situated application" that resides on their JotSpot wiki. Convinced wikis and blogs go together, JotSpot has also released a new blog application designed for corporate workgroups. 

Granted, the vast majority of Socialtext's and JotSpot's customers use these tools to publish applications, improve business communications, and encourage flexible exchange across the enterprise. But the tight integration of blogs and wikis demonstrates a trend the companies believe will continue: allowing small companies, groups, and individuals to make a worthwhile contribution to content creation and collaboration. There's a catch, though: "It will probably take a while for people to get comfortable with the idea of editing other people's stuff," JotSpot's Kraus says.

Even Out the Playing Field
Blogging is a medium whose popularity in both the consumer and enterprise space is credited with how simple and easy it made publishing text to the Internet. The proof is in the numbers. While estimates vary, Technorati, a leading blog search engine, counts more than 14 million blogs published, and states that another 40,000 are added to the list daily. Recent research conducted by comScore Networks and sponsored by SixApart and Gawker Media shows blog readership is also on the rise. The top 400 blog domains tracked by comScore were visited by 50 million U.S. Internet users in Q1 2005.

The blogosphere is also humming with creative activity as dozens of books, plays, and other content works are being written publicly on the Internet. "Blogs give individuals a space to author and own," notes Anil Dash, VP professional network at SixApart, a provider of blogging software and services. "Among our users we have academic communities that are peer-editing research and publications by taking works-in-progress and sharing them on the service, allowing more people to give feedback earlier in the cycle." 

Among the objectives of SixApart—whose Typepad software caters to conventional bloggers interested in publishing content—is to provide individuals "tight granular control" over how they connect with communities and the content they share, Dash says. "This will lead to really good collaborative efforts." It's also a feature bound to resonate with the more than 8.5 million members of SixApart's LiveJournal online community, which it acquired earlier this year. There, bloggers who want to communicate with a limited sphere of friends congregate and therefore seek a service that allows them access control to individual blogs. 

Dash believes that bloggers will want to collect and share the information that matters to them—regardless of whether it comes from television, books, newspapers, or other community members. Bloggers will also increasingly seek tighter interaction with their audiences and welcome a feedback channel in the other direction. 

To this end, SixApart is "putting a lot of effort and investment" into developing open formats for sharing information and identity, Dash says. The company is about to launch a service that will take any feed on the Web and allow users to publish onto their blog site. Users "can take a stream of photos, news headlines, RSS, or anything, and make it a part of their identity," Dash continues. According to Dash, "They can use it to say, ‘This is who I am,' and share the newspapers they read, the music they listen to, the content they create, and the ideas they have." 

Looking forward, the next hurdle is better integration between existing collaboration tools on the market. Quoting cyberpunk author William Gibson, Dash says, "The future is already here—it is just unevenly distributed." 

Creativity Makes a Comeback
By providing the "technology to build full-scale multimedia Web sites with the ease of blogging," Five Across, Inc. believes it has dramatically changed small business site creation and is poised to transform the way individuals and small companies communicate and collaborate on the Internet. "The Web has grown up as a one-way conversation where ‘Web visitors' consume information," observes Glen Reid, Five Across founder and CEO. "We think that ‘Web visitors' are becoming ‘Web participants' and that the Web is becoming a conversation within communities of participants."

To support this new multi-directional Web, Five Across has developed Bubbler, a hosted service designed to take the pain out of creating a compelling Web presence. Bubbler provides page navigation that is generated automatically and updates text and pages in real time with blog-like content-creation tools. To ease beginner content creation, Bubbler provides drag-and-drop photo-, audio-, and video-sharing, and has a group model that allows wiki-like collaboration for authorized users complete with built-in RSS capability to syndicate content with a mouse-click. Other features let users invite friends or colleagues onto their blogs as guest authors. The newest addition, Court Reporter, allows users to post entries to their blogs in real time and enables an IM-like conversation between multiple users on a single blog site.

Reid, a veteran of Apple who led the development of iMovie and iPhoto, wants to reinvent Web publishing by removing the complex processes that have so far favored the elite of large enterprises and tech-savvy professionals over small companies and individuals. "Now users in creative fields, public relations, teachers, and even families can create a Web presence easily," Reid says.

According to David Aune, VP of marketing, Five Across, the next step will be "integrating everything users can do into a more seamless service" that also connects users in the ways they want. "With our service users can not only choose to collaborate, they can choose how they want to collaborate," Aune explains. That interaction can be in the form of an active contribution to the group or passive observation of work-in-progress, in which case users can set parameters for alerts and direct them to be delivered via email, cell phone, or IM pop-ups. 

This egalitarian approach gets high marks from John Blossom, president and senior analyst at Shore Communications Inc., a company that specializes in research and advisory services for publishers and consumers of content services. "The hosted aspect certainly takes complexity down a notch, and packaging additional features in roughly the same price range makes it possible for small businesses to get out there on the Internet and communicate competently," Blossom says. 

The question, according to Blossom, is, "How many of those small businesses are ready to think like Web publishers?" After all, Blossom adds, "tools do not equal craftsmanship, so the real challenge is to come up with something of value that people really care about." Outsell's Strohlein agrees, saying that Bubbler "turns people into human multimedia production studios, and I'm not sure how many people have the talent to actually produce content at that scale." 

While it's not clear what impact more democratic content creation and collaboration tools will have on the quantity and quality of content produced by these empowered companies and individuals, Blossom sees a clear implication for the companies that do business with them. "With so much content coming from competent individuals on a professional basis or an enthusiast basis, there's no way that a traditional content company can go out there and strike licensing deals with all of these people," he explains. "The old models of aggregation no longer work."    

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