The Magic of Mash-ups: Co-browsing

What is co-browsing?

Co-browsing lets multiple users work together in their respective browsers through what look like shared screens and communicate via telepresence including video and audio.  The impact of this technology is enormous as companies become more virtual and the need for serious collaboration increases to be competitive in tough times.  To be able to share, interact and see the body language of your collaborator in real-time without extraordinary downloads to your PC or expensive third party solutions could simply change the way we work.  This innovation comes from not Google, or Yahoo but from IBM in a proof of concept project called Blue Spruce, a Web browser application platform that IBM is working on to allow simultaneous multiuser interactions enabled by AJAX and other standard technologies through the Web browser.

blue spruce header

The Blue Spruce project is IBM’s solution to the classic one-window, one-user limitation of current Web browsers.  The application is a mash-up that combines Web conferencing with voice and video and other data forms to let people share content including existing Web widgets – at the same time.  Two different users, possibly anywhere, are able to move their respective mouse pointers around the screen in the browser to click and make changes on the shared application, with the platform enabling concurrent interactions through the browser without disruptions.  Despite the appearance, the co-browsers aren’t actually sharing content. Both collaborators obtained a Web page through the Blue Spruce client, but the “events” enabled by the mouse are what is being sent to the Blue Spruce Co-Web Server.  The idea is that no matter where the two users are in the Internet world, they pick up the general data caches on both personal computers and react to the events.

The applications for co-browsing collaboration are numerous, especially for knowledge workers. In healthcare, IBM has used Blue Spruce to create an online “radiology theatre” product, currently at the prototype stage, which allows teams of medical experts to “simultaneously discuss and review patients’ medical test data using a Web browser.” The project is being run in collaboration with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Boston.  According to IBM, it has created a secure Web site that allows select medical experts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to access and collaborate on data such as CT scans, MRIs, EKGs and other medical tests. Each medical expert can “talk and be seen through live streaming audio/video through their standard web connection, and have the ability to whiteboard over the Web page as well as input information to the patient’s record.” Basically it is a secure multimedia experience running inside a single browser window, using Blue Spruce as the platform.

It is important to note that Blue Spruce is not your typical “fat client” or downloaded application, but it is a fully browser-based application development platform, currently in development, which is being built on open Web standards. The main feature of Blue Spruce is that it allows for a combination of different Web components – data mashups, high-definition video, audio and graphics – to run simultaneously on the same browser page. It’s important to note that the Radiology Theatre app only requires a standard Web browser – so there’s nothing to download for the end user, in this case, doctors.

This is how IBM described how the new online radiology theatre will work:

 “A group of doctors can log into a secure Web site at the same time to review and analyze a patient’s recent battery of tests. For instance, a radiologist could use her mouse to circle an area on the CT scan of a lung that needs a closer look. Then using the mouse she could zoom into that scan to enlarge the view for all to see. An expert on lung cancer could use his mouse to show how the spot had changed from the last scan. And then, a pathologist could talk about patient treatments based on spots of that size depending on age and prior health history, paging through clinical data accessible on the site.”

“The theatre allows all these experts to discuss, tag and share information simultaneously, rather than paging through stacks of papers, calling physicians to discuss scan results and then charting the results. This collaborative consultation brings together the personal data, the experts and the clinical data in one physical, visual theatre.” 

The impact on rural medicine and the need for telemedicine for key healthcare experts is significantly advanced with this technology.
Perhaps the biggest potential benefit of the online radiology theatre is that it will enable experts from all over the world to consult on cases. The ability for multiple users to “co-browse” means they can interact in the browser in real-time and see each other’s changes.  Of course, since this is medical data, there are significant privacy implications involved in using the Internet to collaborate.  The time and cost savings from collaboration is important, but better and faster decision making is the key.

The need for inexpensive and minimally invasive techniques for real collaboration over the Internet is real and the backlog of potential applications is fun to consider.  Imagine reviewing your health care or insurance claims with a live person (and their reactions) at the insurance company to reduce cycle time, or collaborating on new product engineering drawings from the U.S. with your Chinese manufacturer.  Imagine the potential for teaching or training with key experts and a worldwide audience using a live whiteboard. Finally, imagine not paying big monthly fees for basic meeting collaboration needs on a daily basis.  Blue Spruce is really a technology to keep an eye on.

Web 2.0: Like Prego Spaghetti Sauce “It’s In There!”

It's in there!

It's in there!

Web 2.0 is giving me flashbacks to an old TV commercial for Prego spaghetti sauce; “Tomatoes, in there! Garlic, in there! Carrots, in there! Half of Italy, in there!…”  It seemed no matter what you asked for it was in that bottle of sauce.  Being a sauce, how could you really tell what was in there, or if it was really needed?  Plus, the tomatoes colored everything red so who knows?  Now we have another bottle of technical sauce here called Web 2.0; it’s in there!  It’s colored all Internet so how can you tell what is really in there, or if it is really needed?

Good question, seems like every vendor says they’re on the bottle of ingredients, in fact the most important one.  It would be funny if it was not so pathetic.  Unfortunately, the smell here is not a nice bubbling spaghetti sauce, closer to a warm crock of….., you get the concept.  Every vendor out there seems to believe companies will blindly buy anything labeled Web 2.0. Rather, the CIO’s are more apt to remember the Internet bubble and where that approach got them the last time.

What is required is more definition of what Web 2.0 is, and why we in IT need to move in that direction.  To get that basic understanding, we need to breakout that old spaghetti sauce pan again to boil out all the fancy analysis and obsequious technology.  Lo and behold! What remains is a simple concept: the inmates are now in control of the asylum.  Users of the Internet have turned the tables on the big players in the space, they are no longer happy being spoon fed from a portal. The denizens want to hunt it on their own terms, see it their own way, save it and dispose of it as they please.  If you stand in their way, this mob of Internet hunter-gatherers will crush you with the loss of their eyeballs (poor Yahoo, poor EBay, happy Facebook, happy iPhone).

If this basic principle is followed like a lode stone, much that is occurring in the Internet space is much more illuminating and the proper path forward (with supporting technology) is a great deal clearer to discern.  For example, the winning companies embrace openness and external developers.  There is no way their internal staff can create and the site push enough content and functionality to stay on top.  The Tao of a top site is to be one with the masses, following and attempting to push is uncool.  Allowing users to mash-up specialty widgets into cool personal discoveries is winning, monetization will ultimately follow.

By this point, you are thinking — how is all this ethereal philosophic spew helping me?  I need to get something together that can be called Web 2.0 or my IT existence is at risk!  Do not worry Grasshopper (I’m showing my ’70s again, rats!) I’ll put forward a corporate-friendly straw man.  If SharePoint is used to enable a project, process, or department; it is so Web 1.0 (boring!).  If we put the entire corporation up on SharePoint, acting like a corporate Facebook, we are getting there.  If we template it such that we now have ubiquitous collaboration; optimizing and moving our corporate intellectual property (IP) at light speed much nicer.  But for ultimate coolness, we need to commit heresy and wire a Google search appliance in, after adding all of our corporate content to the pile: documents, presentations, everything.  Then the cherry on top, flatten key data bases to HTML and toss them in.  Now, with proper organizational change management (Yes Billy! You can run with scissors, points down please), employees can use all of the power contained in Web 2.0 to maximize unstructured corporate data for speed and profit.  Mangiare! Mangiare!

Putting Enterprise 2.0 Solutions in Order

A visitor walking the demo floor at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference would find it hard to define what all these companies and product offerings have in common and what qualifies them to be categorized as Enterprise 2.0 solution providers.

While vendors of organizational social networks are a clear fit, what is common to advanced search vendors, enterprise mashup providers, Content Management vendors and video broadcasting solutions?

It seems that the common thread is a shared vision of the future enterprise as a social, open and collaborative place where data, content, knowledge and expertise are more easily available and where productivity results from enhanced collaboration and information sharing.

We can categorize the solution areas based on what they allow the user to do:
 

Finding information and data across silos and systems is still the holy grail of today’s information systems. Our information workers are dependent on their access to information but the ever growing amount and complexity of the data makes it harder and harder.

Most basic Enterprise 2.0 products cover the first 4 levels. They include a basic search for content within the network, provide tools for creating new content, sharing, and collaboration using technologies like discussions, wiki’s, blogs, RSS, Public Profiles, and groups.

Products in this category include: Microsoft Sharepoint, SocialText, Telligent , Thoughfarmer and GroupSwim among many others.

The fifth level offers a unique opportunity to leverage the interactions, conversations and links to add context and intelligence. By using Tags or by auto detection of terms and traffic patterns, some of the solutions can help create a layer of relationships and meaning on top of the content and link together disparate pieces of content, data and people for a complete picture.

Products in this category include: OpenWater, Connectbeam, Inquira

The 6th level in our stack consists of tools that try to bring together and connect data from disparate systems and source and allow the user to connect them and create custom applications and views on demand. By using open standards and web services, these tools called Mashups attempt to simplify our search for information across multiple systems by allowing us to pull from them without creating a separate datamart as the baseline for data and correlation.

Mashups are a hot topic for enterprise portals and enterprise web 2.0 initiatives. IBM, Oracle and Micosoft are releasing mashup tools as well as a few smaller vendors like Jackbe and Serena

At the final level, we would all like to have a toolset that will allow us to discover ideas, bring important knowledge to our attention, alert us in real time to activities and trends we should be watching, feed us in real time information that is relevant to the tasks we are performing. No tools in this category yet but check again in a few months…

The ROI and game changing benefits of Enterprise web 2.0 internal implementations can go well beyond important outcomes like of employee involvement, morale and collaboration. It would come from harnessing the intelligence, context and knowledge within the organization (data, content and people) and outside sources to increase productivity, shorten development lifecycles, enhnace relationships make better decisions and inspire innovation.