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.

Know Your Customer: How Web Analytics can save your IT applications team money

We’ve all dealt with requirements that were written by well-meaning, but Mosaiclogotechnology-confused procurement departments, or business users who believe that people still use the Mosaic Browser (my first graphical browser!). Few authors of quasi-technical requirements put much thought to the actual cost of implementing a modern, rich, dynamic web application on decade-old technology.

A purposely over-the-top hypothetical quote :

The application must support Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0+, Netscape 4+ at a minimum graphical resolution of 800×600 pixels.

While you may at first chuckle at this obvious bit of anachronism, think back to the last system requirements you spec’ed out for a web application.

What browsers did you ask to support? Were you shocked when the development team told you you couldn’t have that cool AJAX drop-down because your browsers didn’t support it? Were you suprised when compromises had to be made to the look and feel, or flow of the application? How many users really use those old browsers, anyway? How many of your users do?

“They shoot browsers, don’t they?” — Jeremy Keith

Don’t know the answer? Don’t worry, it’s pretty common. A lot of businesses make requests for web-based applications without first doing internal due diligence to understand their target market. Sure, you can build a web application that settles for the lowest common denominator — but why sacrifice when you might not have to?

Understanding your users’ browsing platform should be one of the first steps to building requirements for projects that involve a significant IT spend on web application development, whether it be enhancements to existing applications, or greenfield development.

Here’s 4 reasons why skipping this important step of due diligence will cost you more money, or users, or attention:

  1. You’ll Be Too Conservative. Fearing that you’ll lose the 0.5% of users who may be on Internet Explorer 5.0, you’ll insist (against your CTO’s recommendation) that all users are important, and if it means sacrificing a few bells and whistles, so be it.
  2. You’ll Be Too Boring. You’ve heard about rich internet applications, Web 2.0, AJAX? If you’re trying to support these new technologies on browsers that are 5+ years old, forget it.
  3. You’ll Spend Too Much. The 80/20 rule will be in full effect when you realize late in the development cycle that no one tested with Netscape 7.2. “But it’s in the requirements document!” cries the project sponsor. Frantic testing will unveil the fact that half the functionality is broken or visually skewed. You fire the designer, and the project goes into a death march to the lowest common denominator.
  4. You’ll Be Unhappy with the Final Product. You’re building the web application to replace your mainframe claims processing system. Or your billing system. Or your financial forecasting package. And the final, boring mess will look exactly like what you had on your old green-screen system, except it’s different. Users are complaining that it’s not easy to use, and your CFO is now revisiting your ROI projections. Projects aren’t supposed to end like this… are they?

Fortunately, judicious use of web analytics and good old fashioned business analysis can provide you with concrete data to build a solid foundation of business cases and technical requirements. The chart below illustrates browser market share over the past 9 months:

Browser Stats April 2009

Source: StatCounter Global Stats, April 2009

You can see that the bulk of market share goes to a very small percentage of very modern and powerful browsers. How can this information help you? In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore how up-front legwork in web application development can lead to a happy outcome for all.

Chrome: Apple Looks Better All The Time

I should be biting my tongue, but the pain exploding in my brain by thinking this prevents me from doing anything further to my anatomy.  As one who escaped IBM’s totalitarian regime of the 1980′s (run Apple 1984 Super Bowl commercial), I can not believe I want to return, even if Steve Jobs is cool and IBM was not.  Chrome is what is sending me there.

Does anybody think of the poor slobs shoveling coal in the bowels of IT support when they think up a new browser or (shudder!) yet another toolbar.  These unsung heroes are just turning the corner on the Safari onslaught — every user with an iPod (99.999998% approx.) had this disease ridden Typhoid Mary installed on their PC auto-magically (thank you for the opt out Apple, not).  At least Chrome is “voluntary” at this point, requiring a mouse click for download, but given Google’s track record with their Toolbar, it is sure to be foisted on every unsuspecting PC in short order.  I can’t wait.

The best part about all of these revolutionary browsers is playing malware shell games with their developers: “We fixed some bugs, but we are not going to tell you which ones (Ha Ha Ha).”  Nothing personal, but what happened to “Do No Evil”?  It is an oxymoron, name one marketing/advertising entity with morals (it started with Josef Goebbels and has been downhill ever since).

This weeks Economist has a much more interesting insight in its technology section. The bulk of the world will be accessing the Internet through their cell phones based on cost, penetration, and true ubiquity.  This is the platform of the future and the one most in need of innovation and development (the greatest good for the greatest number I always say).  Putting all of the resources of the Internet in the hands of the poor and repressed and truly flattening the world as put forward by Friedman seems so right, squabbling over the desktops of the rich developed world seems so Evil (well trivial and venal in any case).

I am not a Luddite (argh! I am having an existential moment), Chrome does have value beyond firing up the trade press and blog traffic (oops, did I say Chrome in my blog too?).  It legitimately tries to move the user experience up a level in terms of trying to derive an informational level of interface instead of gratuitous data groveling at a list level.  More research needs to move in this direction as the data volumes increase to the absurd.  One question we discussed: Would cartoon character representation assist C-level executives understanding?  The answer is of course, Yes! Only The Family Guy could illuminate those fixtures.

Chrome: a new browser from Google. Or a new Web OS?

I’m very excited about the news breaking out today of Chrome: the new browser from Google. It will launch tomorrow and you can read all about it on Google’s blog and see their tech friendly comic book(that is brilliant by itself).

I have to admit that both the last release from Firefoxand especially the half baked lackluster IE8 beta from Microsoft were disappointing. While providing relatively minor improvements to most users, they failed to address the biggest challenge confronting the continuing growth of the web: inherent support for rich applications. All we want is to use our email, IM, Search and Facebook without it crashing every few hours taking all windows and tabs with it.

The browser had become the master application where most of our work and play on the computer is done these days. As Google had nicely put it in their blog post “All of us at Google spend much of our time working inside a browser. We search, chat, email and collaborate in a browser. And in our spare time, we shop, bank, read news and keep in touch with friends — all using a browser.” … “What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that’s what we set out to build”

So it seems that the smart guys at Google finally understood that if they base their entire business on ads presented while web browsing, they better make sure that browsing experience is fast, secure and continues to flourish. Counting on Microsoft to do that for you is not a smart business strategy.

The new Chrome browser was built from scratch not as a browser but as a platform. Most of the features and improvements are taken form the OS playbook for stability and security: process containment, sand boxing, efficient garbage collection, tight security model.

Here is a short list of some of the innovation the Chrome is introducing:

  • Process isolation for tabs and plugins within tabs. Awesome. No more will a single window force me to kill the browser with all 30 tabs I have open gone with the wind.
  • New Javascript virtual machine that will product compiled machine code. If Java script is to be the future of rich web interfaces (as opposed to the proprietary Flash or Silverlight) it needs to run fast and be more robust and that’s exactly what the new virtual machine is providing.
  • Gears Integration: with Gears support for persistency and OS level access, developers can build client level applications for the web with reasonable portability
  • Security: the new security model offers a strong foundation for ongoing security schema that can be used by application coders and plugin providers.

Google will also make the whole thing open source, allow plugins and invites everyone to add and extend.

That’s the kind of innovation we need in order to keep the web growing and becoming the robust platform for work and play.

I can’t wait to give it a full try tomorrow.