Strategic screen sharing

Why don't screen-sharing systems focus on doing one thing well?

There's one thing I wish screen-sharing systems would do well: screen sharing. I watch a lot of demos projected to my computer. It's always a struggle, both for the presenter and for me. Windows or Mac? IE or Firefox? Who has the latest version of the client? Who's the host? Which application is shared? Can you see my screen?

While we answer these questions, the first five or 10 minutes of the meeting swirl down the drain. I've used every screen-sharing system and, from this perspective, they're roughly the same. None performs its basic function simply and well. All are determined to add whiteboards, chat, and filing systems. In principle these are useful features but in practice, for most people most of the time, they're just not usable.

Consider, for example, the importation of documents into a shared workspace. It sounds great, but working together on a shared document is a slippery concept. We might share control of the document's native application. We might use a generic viewer/editor. Or we might just scribble annotations on a picture of the document.

Which of these possible scenarios is actually available depends on the combination of applications, file formats, operating systems, and screen-sharing techniques in use. Even in an enterprise environment, where some of these variables can be controlled, this matrix confounds almost everyone. Across enterprise borders it's even worse. But when collaboration can't cross those borders, it tends to devolve into corporate navel-gazing.

Why don't screen-sharing systems focus on doing one thing well? It's partly because the simple, single-purpose tools that helped make Unix great haven't been fashionable for a long time. But nowadays, feature bloat isn't just the competitive arms race it once was; it's also a tacit endorsement of continuous partial attention as a bedrock principle of the simulated workplace. We must always be presented with the maximum number of invitations to multitask.

The irony, of course, is that the intellectual work that powers the so-called knowledge economy depends critically on our ability to enter and sustain periods of focused concentration. These flow states are hard to attain, and all too easily disrupted.

Back in July I discussed WriteRoom, a distraction-free writing tool. Inspired by that example, I simplified my Macintosh and Windows desktops. I can't quantify the benefit of this new habit, but the fact that I've stuck with it suggests there is one.

A distraction-free screen-sharing system would likewise slash clutter. Suppose you send me an invitation link by e-mail. I click the link and my screen-sharing client starts up. What else, in addition to the screen that you're sharing, should I be seeing?

Here's a radical idea: nothing else. I have rarely used any of the peripheral features, and have never depended on them. All that really matters is that I see the screen that's being pushed to me at the best available resolution and highest possible frame rate.

As the host of the session, what else in addition to the screen you're sharing should you see? Again: nothing else. The reality is that when you're presenting, you've got your hands full just managing what's on your own desktop, or in the application window that you're projecting.

I've raised this issue in every screen-sharing session I've recently attended. Everyone agrees. When somebody builds the WriteRoom of screen sharing, the world will beat a path to its door.

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Jon Udell

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