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Microsoft GigJam, First Take: Great idea, shame about the interface

Microsoft's GigJam app is a frustrating mix: a huge leap forward in collaboration, and an interface that tries to be too simple for its own good.

Collaborative editing in a document can be an exercise in frustration and doesn't address the real way people work together, which is by looking at information together and deciding what to do with it. Want to brainstorm your next sales meeting, or get your team to work through all the customer emails that are about orders that went wrong?

That kind of collaboration -- involving details from multiple systems and multiple people -- doesn't work inside a single document. Instead, you either tell someone what steps to follow to see the same thing on-screen that you can see or show them your laptop screen -- and try to make sure there's nothing personal or confidential visible in any of the windows.

It's this kind of real-world teamwork that Microsoft's new GigJam app is aimed at. Don't think 'gig' in sense of a temporary job -- it's more in the sense that you can control how the workflow happens. The app is available for Windows, Mac and iOS, but the clean, over-simple interface and touch-first tools scream 'tablet' rather than 'desktop'. Most of the controls are hidden behind the hamburger menu and the plus button, or only appear in the bottom action bar when you can use them. That keeps things clean, but also makes it confusing to get started, and some of the key features aren't discoverable in any way, unless you read the very sparse documentation on the GigJam website.

A 'gig' is a workspace where you can place 'cards' that show information from various services: files from Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, or your own local files (but oddly not SharePoint); tasks from Trello, Wunderlist and Asana (but not Outlook via Office 365); calendar, contacts and email from Office 365, consumer Outlook.com and Gmail; or CRM information like leads, orders and opportunities from Salesforce and Dynamics.

You can use the hamburger menu to open the Sources pane and sign into the different cloud services, or just pick the services from the pane that appears on the right when you hit the Plus button and sign in from there. The hamburger menu also lets you see gigs you've made before and gigs other people have invited you to, plus the very limited Settings menu (which just turns email notifications on and off).

Select a service and the type of information you want to get from it and a 'card' the size of a smartphone screen appears. If it's for contacts, calendar or tasks, it stays that size and you navigate through it as if it were a smartphone app (although a limited one: you can search your contacts but not your calendar). This is a live link to your information so you can create new meetings or tasks (but not delete them), although it's slow and doesn't give you any feedback that you've clicked the Save button, so we often created two meetings by accident. Contact integration was particularly buggy: Outlook.com told us we didn't have any contacts at all, while Office 365 displayed a limited number of contacts (out of some 2,700 in the address book) but the items were mostly blank -- the only fields containing any information were Company and Notes, making them impossible to use.

You can also add cards by saying or typing what you want into the task bar at the bottom. There are no prompts for what you can say or type -- it's phrases like 'Office' and 'show me contacts', which give you a selection of cards to choose from.

Cards for files get bigger when you navigate through the folder list and pick a file, but although you can rearrange the order of cards, you can't resize them. You can't zoom in or out of cards, so if you drag in an image, you'll have to scroll through it rather than seeing it all on-screen at once. Plus, you can't resize the app window to be smaller than two-thirds of your screen. Again, this looks like an app designed for a tablet that doesn't take advantage of the screen resolution of a modern laptop: the cards keep things looking uncluttered, but they don't fill the screen or display information efficiently, so you can only ever see two of them on-screen at once. The difference between a dark-grey on mid-grey service card you've already added and a black-on-pale-grey card you haven't added from the services list is also difficult to spot unless you're looking at a service with multiple functions.

That matters because you can only add one file from each location, unless you drag them in from Explorer, in which case you can add as many files as you want. This is so limiting and counter-intuitive that that I'm assuming that you can actually add multiple files from OneDrive or Box, although I've still not worked out how. You can add Office, PDF and image files, but you can't drag in HTML files. With PDFs, PowerPoint presentations and Word documents you can scroll through longer files, but none of the Excel files we tried adding would display -- we just saw an error saying they couldn't be previewed.

Once you've added a file or another information source, you tap the share button, which looks like a hand-drawn circle and actually draws a circle over it. If want to link two cards, you draw a circle with your finger (or mouse) over each card in turn. In either case, this adds new buttons to the taskbar at the bottom to link or share the cards. You can choose which fields to connect, so you can match names in contacts to names in orders, or names in email to attendees in meetings. That means you'll only see Salesforce information for the people you're meeting with, or Dynamics product information for the people in your address book. That's the clever bit, so it's disappointing that you do this by working with tiny icons that appear and disappear, with the Unlink command being a text link that appears on the other side of the screen.

Sharing has an equally tiny button in the interface, and takes several steps. First, mark up the card you're sharing; after tapping the circle button to share the card, you can draw a cross with your finger or mouse to keep some information private. That could be pages of a PowerPoint, paragraphs in a Word document, fields in a meeting (keeping the location private), or specific tasks on your to-do list. People can see that you've hidden some information because there's a gap in the document where it would be.

This is easy in a short document, but very tricky in a long document, because you have to use two fingers to scroll down (on-screen or on your trackpad) -- trying to scroll with one finger just draws messy lines over your document. If you redact a chunk of the card and then decide you want to share it, you can tap to remove the redaction. But every time we did this, it removed all the redactions and the sharing interface, so we had to start from scratch.

Once you get that finicky process right, you have to choose a contact to share with, by typing their name into the unlabelled taskbar and then selecting the name you've just typed. Click the green button that pops up in the corner and you can choose whether you want them to 'See with me' or 'Work with me'. That's what you'd usually call view and edit rights. 'See with me' only shows them what you choose to display in the gig: they can't scroll the documents or change the view in the calendar, but you can. 'Work with me' gives them full navigation and full write access: not only can they scroll a document, but they can also go right through your calendar or address book and start adding things to it, so choose wisely. Neither of you can edit documents in a gig. You can select multiple cards to share (although again that's fiddly if you want to redact them) and pick the sharing mode for all of them, or share one card at a time and set the modes individually. The latter is a slow process, but it does let you share cards with one invitee and not another.

Once a gig is shared, the idea is that you get on the phone or sit down in a room together with your computers, because that way you can navigate through the on-screen information and talk it through. You can leave notes on each card, but they're not tagged to any particular part of the document, so this works best in real time.

Tantalizingly unfinished

For an application first demonstrated a year ago, GigJam still feels tantalizingly unfinished, with a limited number of services you can connect to, frustrating bugs when connecting to Microsoft's own services, no way to work offline and an interface you're unlikely to figure out without reading the documentation (and even then may find frustrating).

It's also a fascinating glimpse into what the Microsoft Graph can unlock. The ability to filter your CRM leads information based on your meetings, or your email based on your unfulfilled orders, or your tasks based on the emails about what you're supposed to be doing -- and share that view with your colleagues -- could make you hugely productive. The ability to see the PowerPoint and the Word document you're going to use in a meeting, along with the emails everyone has had from the people you're meeting with so you know what they care about, could be a great way to prepare for the meeting. And you can do all that without sharing more information than you want (probably). It's a fantastic idea, but Microsoft really needs to improve the execution.

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