oneDrum’s bold bid to sew the fabric of collaboration

Desktop productivity tools based on the web have a certain quality that predisposes them to collaboration: users are effectively accessing a single application instance ‘in the cloud’, and a single copy of a given document, so many of them can edit that document simultaneously without creating multiple, diverging copies.

That single feature is proving highly disruptive to Microsoft’s near monopoly over desktop applications. As seen at this week’s LotuSphere conference in Florida, the launch of an online version of IBM’s groupware product LotusNotes has revitalised that brand, while Google’s online apps have won some high profile customers. And later this year, Microsoft will launch the online version of its Office suite.

In other words, some of the IT industry’s most powerful players are queuing up to capitalise on the disruptive impact of online collaboration on the desktop application market. Closer to home, however, a UK start-up is taking an altogether different approach to the challenge of making such tools more collaborative.

oneDrum was founded in 2008 by CEO Jasper Westaway, who cut his technological teeth deploying highly distributed financial services systems. That experience taught Westaway a lot about collaborative systems, he says, even if the collaboration in question took place between automated machines. “If a data centre in London has a failure and the data centre in New York has to take up the slack, a lot of the challenges and restrictions on what you can do – such has getting visibility into how resources are changing – are similar to the challenges associated with collaborative working,” he explains.

The company’s product, it claims, allows users of on-premise Microsoft Office applications to collaborate in a fashion previously confined to cloud-based tools. It does this through peer-to-peer technology: All the employees working on a document have a copy of it on their local machine; any changes they make are instantly enacted on all the other versions.

This gives users the best of both worlds, argues Westaway, who believes that the relative unsophistication of applications that execute in the browser means that business are unlikely to be giving up their on-premise desktop tools any time soon. Some of these services have been available for some time, he points out, but “the vast bulk of people are still using [on premise] Office.”

Of course, Microsoft has in SharePoint its own document collaboration play. Westaway argues, however, that even the online version of SharePoint server does not permit this simultaneous editing, because the editing application is itself still on the desktop, and so must draw down a local copy.

There are, Westaway concedes, drawbacks to oneDrum’s approach. There is a possibility of the local instances of a document falling out of synch, should one user work on it offline. But for one thing, he says, this is preferable to be ‘always online’. Secondly, offering a back-up service for the parts of a document that have undergone change during collaboration is one way in which oneDrum may justify a paid-for “premium” version of its software (it is currently available for free to invited users).

The long-term plan, given a recent boost in the form of a £1 million capital injection, is to offer the peer-to-peer, simultaneous collaboration functionality for all manner of applications, beyond just Microsoft office.

It seems unlikely that the £1 million will be enough for oneDrum to take on the might of the likes of Microsoft, Google and IBM to become the dominant model of document collaboration. But Westaway insists this is not a technology any other player is likely to crack any time soon; “its bloody hard”, he says.

Clearly, therefore, acquisition by a larger concern is the most likely means by which this technology might reach mainstream adoption. Should that happen, it could well disrupt the desktop applications sector yet further.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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