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Sharing the Browser

Software lets workers collaborate online by clicking together.

Online collaboration often consists of little more than forwarding links or snippets from a Web page to a friend or colleague with a few comments dropped in. IBM is hoping to change this by letting people share the browser itself. This is the idea behind Blue Spruce, an experimental browser project that IBM hopes may change the way many people use the Web.

Come together: IBM’s Blue Spruce project lets users work together via the browser. In the example above, financial analysts talk to one another through a high-quality video link, while going through news feeds and stock prices together.

David Boloker, CTO of emerging Internet technology at IBM’s software group in Boston, says that Blue Spruce is a logical progression for the browser. After spending several years researching mashups–applications built by bolting together several smaller pieces of software–Boloker and his colleagues realized that many of the same tools could be used to build a tool for collaborative Web browsing.

The browser in front of him shows the result. It features real-time video of Boloker and a colleague in one corner, a streaming video news clip in the center, and real-time stock data at the bottom. Both Boloker and his colleagues can control the page using separate cursors. And, using a special feature, any changes that they make to the page show up in a different color.

Blue Spruce is not, in fact, a completely new browser; it’s just a clever way of linking together existing browsers (the current prototype works with a modified version of Apple’s Safari). After logging in to the Blue Spruce server, several users can interact with Web pages and applications while the Blue Spruce software makes that server think that it’s dealing with a single browser. Anything that a user does on the shared page is sent to the Blue Spruce server, which sends the change down to other participants.

Multimedia

“We really started focusing on asking, ‘How do I take that browser container and extend it much further than has ever been done before?’” Boloker says. Instead of having to forward a Web link via e-mail or instant message, Boloker’s group wanted to create a system that would let people share information online as easily as if they were sitting in front of the same desk. “We’re trying to replicate face-to-face interaction,” Boloker says. He adds that this goes beyond Web conferencing because it allows multiple users to interact with pages and Web applications, rather than letting just one user take control.

Collaborating on real-estate: A potential real-estate buyer and an agent could view real-estate data from Google Maps, Trulia, and Zillow using the software. Either party could control the Web page or input data.

IBM hopes that Blue Spruce can prove useful for many business workers. For example, financial analysts might start the morning by navigating to a shared Blue Spruce Web page, where they analyze news stories and changes in the stock market together. If the users don’t want to share an entire Web page, the project also has a “huddle” mode that lets them create shared work spaces that contain only limited information.

Although Blue Spruce currently works with only one browser, it is built with broader compatibility in mind. It uses the Web markup language HTML 5, which enables its real-time video and audio feeds without additional software. This is an unfinished standard, but it should eventually be adopted by other browsers. The demonstration system is also built on top of the WebKit, a rendering engine used by both Apple’s Safari browser and Google’s Chrome browser that includes some features of HTML 5. Until all browsers support HTML 5, Boloker says, his group will make Blue Spruce work by building add-ons.

Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in New York University’s interactive telecommunications program and author of the book Here Comes Everybody, says that the project is most significant in that it shows that IBM has identified the Web as a powerful business platform. “IBM, the great seller of Big Iron and custom software, has decided that simplicity plus ubiquity is a better strategy for them,” Shirky says. By moving the work environment into the browser, he says, the company is acknowledging a fact of modern computing: people need tools that will be easy to use no matter what operating system they run or what programs they have, and the browser may be the best way to provide them.

Although Blue Spruce is still a research project, Boloker says that IBM plans to test it early next year with companies in the financial and health-care industries. Assuming all goes well, he says, IBM will expand to six test customers later in 2009.

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