The enterprise may be lagging a bit when it comes to Web 2.0, but Near-Time is trying to help business users tap its promise by offering a way to build wikis as publishing and collaboration platforms without IT help.
Reid Conrad, CEO at Near-Time, sees some interesting trends regarding Web 2.0, and he thinks its time for the business world (sometimes known as Enterprise 2.0) to get on board. “From the content side, the whole realm of user-generated content has been in the consumer market for some time. The business environment is just getting started,” he explains. Conrad’s company is taking advantage of this trend by offering an online wiki environment in a Software as a Service (SaaS) model with which nontechnical business users can quickly build websites and communities.
“Blogs are important, but wikis provide a richer environment for collaboration and interaction. Wikis are web pages and sites in their own right and a light-weight way to bring in other forms of content into the website,” Conrad says.
“We see collaboration and publishing coming together and that’s part of the whole user-generated realm that’s part of the Web 2.0 read/write culture,” he continues. “As you get communities going and you get critical mass, they beget new communities of people and content.”
The key to gathering momentum, he says, is the simplicity of the tools that make it possible for nontechnical business-level staff to generate content and collaborate with colleagues, customers, suppliers, or vendors. “We see that business professionals need to do more via the web. Generally our starting point is with senior business professionals, not necessarily through IT. We are also finding web development people needing to create interactive communities and content on the web,” he says.
Near-Time, which is based in Durham, N.C., in the middle of the famed Research Triangle, was founded in 2003 by Conrad and his partner Lee Buck, both of whom came from a company called Extensibility, which focused on XML solutions. Conrad says the core group from Extensibility established Near-Time with the goal of building a rich collaborative and web publishing environment using Web 2.0, focused on unstructured content.
Near-Time Spaces are collaborative online environments (wikis) in which users create spaces and pages, then invite others to join and add original content or subscribe to different content feeds via RSS. The wikis also provide the ability to share documents, schedule meetings and events, and set user permissions to control access and publishing capabilities.
“Most of our clients tell us that traditional forms of collaboration and publishing come between email and some type of HTML development,” says Conrad, which they describe as “somewhere between ineffective and overwhelming.” Thus, he says Near-Time strives to provide “a light-weight streamlined, standards-based way—any browser works—where you can go in and get your work done.”
Recently, Near-Time teamed up with several widget aggregators, including Widgetbox and Fox SpringWidgets, to enable Near-Time customers to easily integrate widgets into wiki pages. He believes this capability provides for more sophisticated functionality within the wiki without having to know any programming. For instance, Conrad explains, a user may want to introduce a polling widget to find out if a new page is useful to readers.
“Customers don’t need to know about polling; they can just drop the polling widget into the wiki and when they save it, the polling services are available.” This enables users to create content and solutions and combine them easily on-the-fly. Conrad contrasts this to heavyweight enterprise collaboration platforms like IBM WebSphere, which he points out recently introduced Google Gadgets integration, a move he sees as incongruous. “You have this lightweight widget facility being placed into a heavy-weight, IT-driven, programmatic implementation,” he says.
According to Conrad, much of the traditional enterprise software that’s out there doesn’t allow for experimentation when collaborating, and since so many collaborative projects begin on an ad hoc basis, it is difficult to predict every feature they may need. A product like Near-Time’s is simple enough to encourage employees to try new things, enabling the collaborative project to be more flexible. And an easy-to-use wiki tool may just make it all the more likely that they will take chances, establish new connections and relationships, and make new discoveries along the way.
Fun Fact: At Near-Time, employees have a real love for the company burrito and taco bar. Internal surveys indicate that 73% of the Near-Time team finds inspiration for innovation in hot salsa versus mild.