What is ‘real-time’ collaboration?

Browsing AEC Cafe‘s AEC Weekly, I was intrigued by an announcement (also reported by Yahoo here) that Canadian software company CMiC was "taking real-time collaboration to the next level with the introduction of CMiC IO, a revolutionary technology that enables businesses to collaborate both internally and with outside partners …".

Wow! I thought – my mind buzzing with ideas of what they might be using. Could it be instant messaging or group chat? Maybe whiteboard collaboration? What about VOIP or some kind of video or audio conferencing tool?

No. The "revolutionary" technology is actually email. "All a user requires is an e-mail capable device; Pocket PC, Palm, RIM Blackberry and all other intelligent handhelds such as smartphones can be used to send e-mail into a project management database. … users can even be offline and send the e-mail at a later date."

To me, this is not real-time collaboration. Like the technophiles at Whatis.com, I define real-time as using the internet to communicate "with co-workers as if they were in the same room, even if they are located on the other side of the world". I think real-time communication is like having a two-way conversation, with each person reacting almost instantaneously to the other’s opinions, instructions or other information. Email is about sending some information and it being stored in a retrieval system until the recipient gets round to looking at it.

That may be a bit simplistic, of course. Apparently, "CMiC IO enables users to create a record, update a record or add a document to a database by simply composing an e-mail. The software recognizes key words and translates the e-mail into the appropriate database object."

OK, the email can make a change to the central system the instant it is received and processed, but how can this be considered collaborative? Where is the two-way interaction? How do our Blackberry-equipped email senders get real-time feedback?

CMiC’s use of mobile technology is not "revolutionary" either. More than a year ago, I watched as a friend from UK-based support services business Interserve used a well-specified PDA with GPRS connectivity to view and respond to comments on a project being managed using the BIW Information Channel collaboration technology. His interface with the project was via a web-browser, and he could see his ‘headlines’ page refresh itself almost instantly as he clicked on items and completed actions. That was real-time, and – to the extent that his changes were immediately viewable by other online project team members – a degree more collaborative than CMiC’s over-hyped email solution can achieve.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/what_is_realtim/