Web Focus: Using Collaborative Technologies When on the Road
In today's networked environment conference delegates expect to be able to access their email when attending events away from their normal place of work. It is increasingly the norm to be given a guest username and password which can be used in PC areas, primarily to access email and the Web. However such facilities are not always flexible enough to support the changed working environment in which conference delegates may find themselves, such as being out-of-sync with local working hours during a conference on the other side of the globe. This article provides a case study which illustrates the potential of a richer set of communication tools. The article acknowledges that there are likely to be risks associated with use of new technologies, and potential problems are described. The article concludes by describing a deployment strategy which acknowledges potential dangers but permits the evaluation needed prior to making a significant investment in a technology.
Scenario: Finalising a Conference Paper
In March 2005 I found myself having to finalise a conference paper being co-authored by people scattered throughout the UK. As might be expected, following initial face-to-face meetings, email was then used to discuss the structure of the paper and to pass it around to allow co-authors to add their contribution. However finishing the paper with imminent deadlines was complicated by the fact that one of the co-authors was just about to travel to California to attend a conference. The eight hours difference in the time zones meant that it would be difficult to have the interactive discussion required to complete the paper.
The Solution: Instant Messaging
In order to provide the necessary immediacy we made use of Instant Messaging technology. This enabled three of the authors to engage in discussion without the delays inherent in the use of email. This solution did not, of course, address the differences in time zones - we were perhaps fortunate that the author in the US was suffering from jet lag and was still awake at 1a.m.!
Having acknowledged the benefits which could be obtained through use of an instant messaging chat room, we needed to agree on the software to be used. Fortunately we all had an account with MSN and access to the MSN Messenger software. We were therefore able to use this software once details of our MSN accounts were exchanged. Consequently we managed to discuss some of the contentious aspects of our paper and reach agreement on our approach, and so update, complete and submit the paper by the agreed deadline.
Beyond Instant Messaging: The Potential for Internet Telephony
Although use of instant messaging enabled us to successfully complete our task, a richer environment would have been possible if we had all had access to an Internet telephony application. The current leading Internet telephony application is probably Skype . Skype allows free telephone calls to other Skype users (assuming the microphone and sound capabilities are in place in order to speak and listen). In addition Skype users can buy credit which enables them to make cheap calls to landlines or mobile phones (the cost of the calls may be less than 1p per minute).
Applications such as Skype are currently being used by conference participants for both social (phoning home while abroad) and business purposes (allowing remote users to listen in to conference presentations and to engage in discussions). Use of Skype for such purposes has been evaluated at a joint UCISA/UKOLN workshop  and, as described in a report on the workshop, "One very useful thing to come out of the workshop was learning about Skype which describes itself as 'Free Internet telephony that just works'. I'd second that!" .
Having made use of instant messaging and Internet telephony applications to support my work on a regular basis over the past year, I am now convinced of the benefits these applications can provide, by complementing applications such as email. However it should be recognised that there are a number of issues associated with use of such technologies. These include:
Disclosing IDs: Many users will be reluctant to disclose their IDs for instant messaging and Internet telephony applications. They may regard such IDs as being used primarily for personal use (as is the case with mobile phone numbers for many people) or be concerned over potential misuse.
Spam and Spim: Email users are aware of the annoyances causes by spam messages. There is a legitimate concern over the potential annoyances which could be caused by instant messaging spam (sometimes referred to as 'spim').
Interruptions: When using the telephone we receive one call at a time. With instant messaging and Internet telephony applications, however, we can receive an unlimited number of calls simultaneously. The threat of such an interruptive environment may be a barrier to deployment for some.
Privacy: It is possible to configure instant messaging and Internet telephony applications so that you can see when your colleagues are online. For some, this may be regarded as an infringement of privacy.
Performance degradation: Concern has been expressed in some quarters that the reasons for Skype's success (it provides high-quality sound and is easy to configure) may infringe organisations' Internet management policies.
Interoperability: Ideally the collaborative tools we have described will be based on open standards and users should be able to choose their preferred application which supports such standards. However both MSN Messenger and Skype are proprietary products.
Addressing These Challenges
Do such challenges provide an insurmountable barrier to deployment? My view is that, as long as these issues are recognised, it can be possible to make use of the applications described above.
The issues of privacy, disclosure of IDs and minimising spam can be addressed by careful management of one's own ID. Nowadays experienced email users (aware of the approaches spammers take to harvesting email addresses) take precautions to minimise the chances of new email addresses being harvested. We should take similar precautions to avoid IDs for instant messaging accounts suffering the same fate.
Such techniques can be complemented by developing a culture for the use of instant messaging and Internet telephony applications. For example, when first making contact, ask if the person is free to chat, and acknowledge their right to say they are busy. It is also important to gain an understanding of instant messaging and Internet telephony applications management techniques e.g. how to block users, how to set 'do not disturb' notices, etc.
Although both MSN Messenger and Skype are proprietary applications, it is perhaps important not to be dogmatic. There are, of course, dangers in being trapped into use of proprietary solutions: if their use becomes widely embedded within an organisation, moving to more interoperable solutions may be expensive - we know this from our experiences with Microsoft Office applications. However it could be argued that there is a need to establish initially whether an application provides a useful function, and, once this is established, issues such as deployment strategies will then need to be addressed. During this evaluation period the important thing is to be aware of potential dangers and to ensure that migration strategies can be deployed if the dangers turn out to be real.
An issue of concern (not just to individuals seeking to make use of such technologies but also to IT service departments responsible for policy on Internet technologies) is whether the technologies mentioned above could actually prove dangerous. A number of concerns over Skype have been raised, for example. One reason for its popularity has been the ease with which it can be set up and used, even within an organisation with an Internet firewall. In some quarters the ease of installation may conflict with the need to be able to manage applications which connect to the Internet. Similarly the high-quality sound which Skype users enjoy is due to the way in which Skype maximises bandwidth connectivity. Again, in some quarters, such techniques are regarded as potentially hindering other network users.
Although there is a clear need to provide a safe and secure networked environment there is the potential danger of technical policies failing to recognise innovation. Looking at other examples of innovation can be useful in identifying general principles. Back in 1994 when the Netscape browser was first released many users familiar with the Mosaic Web browser were impressed with the performance gains provided by Netscape. Closer analysis revealed that one reason for the speed with which Netscape rendered Web pages containing multiple images was that Netscape sent several parallel requests for embedded resources, unlike Mosaic which sent sequential requests. Some hardliners regarded Netscape's approach as unethical, arguing that the Netscape browser was effectively masquerading as several conventional browsers. However, we can now see that Netscape were innovative in developing an approach which is now implemented widely within Web browsers.
We cannot yet say whether Skype will be regarded as an innovator or a pariah. However current experiences using Skype seem to show that there is a need for this type of application. Whether this will be provided by Skype in its present form, by a modified version which addresses the concerns which have been raised, or by an alternative Internet telephony application remains to be seen.
Currently the advice to the user can be summarised as: be willing to try out new technologies, be aware of possible problems and be prepared to be flexible if the problems prove insurmountable.
- Skype Web site http://www.skype.com/
- UCISA WLF/UKOLN Workshop, November 2004 http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/ucisa-wlf-2004-11/
- Beyond Email: Wikis, Blogs and Other Strange Beasts, R. Bristow, Ariadne, issue 42, January 2005 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue42/beyond-email-rpt/