New wave of real-time collaboration arrives?

When it comes to document collaboration, things can only get better. We’ve seen Google Wave make a splash (sorry) and, together with collaboration tool Google Docs, you could live and work without ever loading any software. Ever.

But this approach has limitations, not least of which is that you can only use the Google-hosted applications, you don’t get to choose your applications, and you really only get the full benefit when all your data is hosted by Google.

Scary? For some — especially financial and similar enterprises encircled by legislative constraints and cautious customers — yes. Even the rest of us might not feel entirely comfortable about it.

One new company, oneDrum, reckons it’s got an answer: keep the applications and documents you use every day and collaborate with colleagues and others in real time using its Java-based (and so platform-independent) platform.

oneDrum is a British company that’s most of the way towards launching a serious competitor to Google Wave and Google Docs. CEO Jasper Westaway welcomes Wave because, you guessed, it helps educate the market and validate the concept. “Without them, we wouldn’t have gone to the market with this”, CEO Jasper Westaway told me.

Westaway says that what he likes about Wave is the way that it blurs the lines between conventional email, IM chat and so on; oneDrum does the same but you can use any application you like. oneDrum’s eponymous platform is set to launch by the end of July.

I tried it. While the software is a bit flaky — it’s still a private beta — it allows users of Microsoft Office applications to open applications and share documents. If you share a spreadsheet, for example, you can each edit the same sheet transparently, with changes appearing instantly on a cell-by-cell basis as if you had made them locally.

An example scenario could involve a sales manager who sees a presentation being opened up by a junior member of his sales team, and changes being made that aren’t relevant for the client the junior exec is about to visit. The boss can step in and make further changes in real time; he or she could also embed comments along the way, effectively using the application as a chat interface.

It works in Office via the Windows COM interface, which is redirected by the Java sandbox across the collaborative medium — in my case it was the Internet but could be a private network — so that the applications running at either end are unaware that they’re collaborating across the globe. “We use the automation API and detect changes and push them out to open copies”, says Westaway.

The underlying mechanism is a Skype-like peer-to-peer system: there’s no central repository. “The overlap with Google Wave is that we use the same operational transformation algorithms“, the benefit of which is that “the algorithm works at whatever level is appropriate for the content, whether bytes or paragraphs, for example,” says Westaway.

And if you go offline, will any changes that happen to be stored on that machine be replicated? Westaway reckons that it depends: “As long as someone is online, you can pick up the changes, it’ll work.”

You could imagine too that there might be problems with security — in some organisations, they’ll want to know exactly where the data is going, for example. “Next year, we’ll offer enterprises the possibility of hosting a central repository for compliance reasons,” says Westaway. “We’ll roll out features that will be attractive to organisations such as banks who want compliance-ready applications. We say to them that we will be ready for you soon — but not yet.”

To start with, the service will be free, but oneDrum will eventually be releasing a subscription model that will include features such as the ability to backup all changes.

Westaway reckons the business is easy to scale, and that that it’s fairly easy to add new applications to the roster. So Westaway reckons that by the end of 2009, support for OpenOffice, for Office for Mac, and Google Docs will be cooked and ready to go, with more in the pipeline.

We’ll have to wait and see how this early promise holds true but, for the moment, the peer-to-peer service, which will be free, could form the basis of a new wave of collaboration without tears.