The history of collaboration technology in the enterprise is riddled with failures and false promises. From the first email services through Lotus Notes, 1990s "groupware" suites and 2000s corporate intranets, technology solutions have usually come up short, often getting in the way of real collaboration.
But that has not stopped the industry from trying. Collaboration solutions are still in high demand and more important than ever as workforces get more distributed. The market for "meeting solutions," according to Gartner, is about a $7 billion industry, and it includes cloud and on-premises video systems.
Slack is the latest collaboration darling and is widely speculated to be planning an IPO this year. Microsoft has Office and SharePoint as enterprise collaboration stables while it keeps trying to build out its Teams product, but currently that is more of a collection of collaboration tools than a complete solution. And Cisco recently unveiled a new initiative to bring its acquired BroadSoft technology together with WebEx Teams. Some observers include online storage vendors such as Box and Dropbox as collaboration tools.
But some emerging vendors are trying to take a different approach altogether. Traditional approaches are still focused on file systems rather than a better collaborative workspace. Enter San Carlos, Calif.-based Bluescape, the wholly owned subsidiary of privately held office design and workspace maker Haworth, based in Holland, Mich.
Bluescape's software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based application, which runs out of Amazon Web Services, functions less like Google Docs and more like a "Google Maps for content," writes Bluescape Chief Technology Officer Demian Entrekin. "Your content is a series of pinpoints or location markers on a map that is searchable, and you can zoom in and out just as you would on a digital map that’s permanently set at ‘street view.’”
Bluescape Enterprise's collaboration space is an open "canvas" of virtually unlimited size, though CEO Peter Jackson puts it at about 49 virtual square miles (7 miles by 7 miles), which is big enough to lay out each high-definition frame of your average summer movie blockbuster end to end and have room to spare, yet agile enough to zoom in easily on each pixel.
Applications and content can be brought into the space for collaborative purposes, through integration partnerships Bluescape has with Adobe, Cisco WebEx, Intel and others. For instance, Bluescape user Blaine Conrad, vice president of product for lifestyle footwear brand Olukai, works with a team to design shoes and product catalogs within Bluescape, using design tools such as Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. The company's design team is dispersed between Portland, Ore., and the corporate headquarters in Southern California and uses web-cam video conference to talk to one another while collaborating.
Prior to Bluescape, Olukai, Conrad said, would share files on a common server but did not have the ability to work on the same file at the same time—or see versions of a project and how they progressed over time.
“With Bluescape, we are mapping each level of product process from a visual standpoint," Conrad said. "So if we start off with one design, we then we have that in Bluescape. Then we have our next design and Bluescape. And then we have our third rendition and Bluescape. And at any one time, we can go back and reference those old ones. Because it's all in this one kind of pallet, or this one universe."
Bluescape’s feature of persistence, or enabling users to save project versions and workspaces over time, also has helped Olukai with merchandising its products, Conrad said. "When we have a style that has five colors we can merchandise those colors with the rest of the range, because it's all in one place. And if we want to reference a color that we did the last round of sampling, we can just simply scroll back and see what that color was and pull it forward if we need to," he said.
All that is needed to set up Bluescape is a touchscreen for each participant and a computer with an internet connection, which could range from a laptop to a giant 65-inch screen that Olukai uses.
Bluescape CEO Jackson sees a great opportunity at the intersection of a multiuser SaaS-based application and touchscreen technology that is rapidly dropping in price and availability. Bluescape works with touchscreen maker Avocor, and Dell Technologies is a partner and reseller of Bluescape.
"We want to be the UI/UX [user interface/user experience] control center for large touch displays," Jackson said, adding that Bluescape is working on making it easier to bring the large canvas down to size for smartphones.
Another factor driving Bluescape’s opportunity is “democratizing” the meeting experience, Jackson said.
“A typical meeting is someone talking too much, and everybody listens or watches a PowerPoint. That’s one-to-many, and we are many-to-many.”
The Bluescape concept was originally envisioned as part of the “big budget innovation room,” he said, “but now we are moving into bigger customers with more than 100,000 employees.”
With some 30 million conference rooms in the world, according to Gartner and other firms, and with only a small percentage of them connected visually, Jackson sees a world where what once was a big-ticket capital expenditure is coming down to the price of a touchscreen and a per-user license fee.
“This is going to change the behavior of people,” Jackson said.
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.