One afternoon last fall, David Levine took the subway from his office in lower Manhattan to a meeting at Rockefeller Center in midtown. The 35-year-old CIO of the startup investment firm Artivest was working on a blog post with colleagues and with freelancers in Boston and Crete. Levine used a new app called Quip to type the post on his iPhone, his wireless connection waxing and waning as the F train clattered through the tunnels. Quip let the team make changes, add comments, and chat via text, all presented in a Facebook-style news feed. Whenever Levine’s connection returned, the app synchronized his contributions with everyone else’s, so they all were working on the same version.
Had they been working with a traditional word-processing program, the process would probably have been a drawn-out round-robin of e-mail messages, proliferating attachments, and manual collation of disparate contributions. Instead, “by the time I got out of the subway, the post was done,” Levine recalls, “and by the time I got out of the meeting, it was on the website.”
It has taken a while for the software that helps people get work done to catch up with the fact that many people are increasingly working on tablets and phones. Now new apps are making it easier to create and edit documents on the go. Meanwhile, cloud-based file storage services, including Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive—which have plunged in cost and soared in usage—help keep the results in sync even as multiple users work on the same file simultaneously. Some cloud services do this by separating what look to users like unified files into separate entries—paragraphs, words, even individual characters—in easily manipulated databases. That lets them smoothly track and merge changes made by different people at different times.
But the most interesting new mobile collaboration services don’t just replicate the software we’re accustomed to using on desktop computers. They also highlight an aspect of group work that received scant attention in the days when coworkers gathered together in offices: the communication that is part and parcel of collaboration. That back-and-forth can have as much value as the content itself. It can keep the team on track, inform participants who join the process late, and spark new ideas.
In traditional word-processing software, much of that conversation gets lost in “notes,” comments, or e-mail. But new document-editing apps capture the stream of collaborative communication and put it on equal footing with the nominal output of the process. Box’s document-collaboration service Box Notes displays avatar icons along the left-hand margin to show who contributed what; CloudOn, a mobile editor for Microsoft Office documents, gives prime placement to both conversations (comments, messages) and tasks (editing, approvals, permissions); and Quip displays a running text-message thread.
“It’s like you walked over to someone’s desk and said, ‘Read this and let me know if you have any questions,’” says Bret Taylor, Quip’s founder and CEO, who was formerly CTO at Facebook. “It’s a very personal, intimate experience that has been lost since the days of e-mail.”
By incorporating streams of messages about the work being created, these apps reflect the fact that many communications are now brief, informal, and rapid. “Most younger people rely on short-form mobile messaging and use e-mail only for more formal communications,” Taylor points out.
For Levine, who has been known to fire off a blog post before getting out of bed in the morning (much to his wife’s dismay), this mobile way of working is far more consonant with the way he lives—striving to squeeze every last iota of productivity out of each moment. “It allows me to accomplish what I need to do without interrupting my flow,” he says. Even when he’s in a subway tunnel.