ERCIM News No.21 - April 1995 - GMD

Basic Support for Cooperative Work

by Klaas Sikkel, Richard Bentley and Thilo Horstmann

BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work) provides facilities for collaboration over the Internet. Its foundation is a "shared workspace" facility that runs across the most commonly used platforms on PC, Macintosh and Sun. This serves as an integration platform onto which a variety of CSCW applications can be added. The emphasis is on integrating existing tools, rather than constructing new ones. BSCW is based on the World Wide Web.

Most CSCW applications constructed in research labs are research prototypes, intended to show the feasibility of some particular novel technique. The way from a research prototype to a practically useful product is long and difficult, however. For proper support of collaboration, a system must be malleable to fit the task at hand, the work environment, and the work practice. Accomodating the heterogeneity and diversity of work-as-it-is proves to be a major stumbling block. In the area of CSCW in particular it is important to overcome this problem. Situated evaluation of prototypes is called for, because collaboration is a process that cannot be studied in isolation from its context.

Our project looks at CSCW from this perspective. We focus on integrating various tools however modest into a simple system that supports practical collaboration in heterogeneous environments. Thus we obtain a system that can be deployed without further ado (our own frustration with the technicalities of intra-organizational collaboration is in fact a major motivation behind this project!). Moreover, it can be used for exploratory research into collaboration models and techniques in situ.

The foundation of the BSCW system is a "shared workspace", an object store for group work, with simple user-tailorable notification facilities that allows users to be informed of relevant changes in the workspace. The first minimal version has already proven to be a useful tool; several extensions are planned for the near future.

A shared workspace can be set up with minimal effort. One needs a BSCW server, which is an extention to an unmodified Word Wide Web server. A workspace user can browse through a shared workspace (if she has permission to do so) with an unmodified WWW client on any platform. The BSCW workspace allows to (over)write objects by means of a small "helper" application that can be retrieved from the workspace.

An unlimited number of applications can be integrated into the shared workspace by defining these as WWW "helpers". In particular, we intend to integrate facilities for audio, video and "shared whiteboard" connections. These might be restricted to specific platforms, however, in accordance with the capabilities of the particular application. Another extension, planned towards the end of 1995, is a separate BSCW client, providing a more advanced graphical user interface and a richer and more synchronous "awareness service". But basic interaction through an unmodified WWW client will remain a priority in future versions, so as to minimize the threshold to getting to use the system.

Revisions and extensions will largely be driven by the experiences with the system in real cooperative tasks. Several pilot projects in different areas have been selected for field tests. More feedback is always welcome: a beta release of the current version is freely available. For further information, see our WWW page.

Please contact:
Klaas Sikkel - GMD
Tel.: +49 2241 14 2699
E-mail: sikkel@gmd.de

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