Friday, 6 September 2002

Doodle on Yahoo Messenger 5.5

The latest release of Yahoo! Messenger - version 5.5 is a significant step towards a workable and affordable electronic collaboration. We are not talking about the web cam support or the new range of emoticons that we have at our disposal, but a singular feature called 'The Doodle'.

Although, the IM Environment was present in earlier release of Yahoo! IM this one is different. Doodle allows two 'friends' to draw on a small window together. You will ask, so what? If you look back, traditionally chat software (from a user perspective) have more or less been the stylised version of the first generation or UNIX based chat applications. The earlier versions allowed users to send and receive multiple lines of text to each other, in many cases in an incoherent manner. Later, companies added capabilities to maintain friend lists and send emoticons.
However, it remained a messenger rather than growing towards a true collaborative tool.

Visual input and feedback is a critical factor in any interpersonal communication. When we speak, besides verbal communication, there is a combination of expressions, gestures and drawing on an imaginary surface. Companies tried to satisfy this need of expression through emoticons, visual feedback (although delayed) by introducing web cams. While emoticons were an instant hit, the amount of people using web cams remained restricted and often null in workplaces. The element of gestures and sketching on imaginary surfaces to explain scheme of things was missing in most of the IM software. (They are available in some high-end collaborative tools for engineering application)

Often we need to explain things to people, which can be done faster while sketching or sketches coupled with text, than illustrating it in words. Like explaining the location where you would meet your friend at your busy subway station or explaining the location of your office respective to the popular shopping mall. Besides the informational value, sketching and drawing have also been associated with self-expression and recreation for a long time. After childhood people stop drawing and sketching but they continue to doodle. From a teacher's caricature in the classroom to the boss's caricature in the boardroom, doodles have always been found to satisfy the self-expression and recreational urge.

Increasingly, products have started to address this urge as well. It started with MS Paint and has reached to picture editors in cell phones. Yahoo Doodle appears to be an attempt on similar lines. Professionals in fields like Architectural design, Engineering, Graphics, Fashion etc can benefit a great deal from this version. People can now discuss ideas by sketching it out together. When we are thinking the ideas are held in our short-term memory (STM), which works pretty much like a computer's RAM. During the thinking process it keeps exchanging information from our Long Term Memory (LTM), which works like a hard disk. To be able to think fresh and different, we should be able to keep the information in STM as fresh as possible. Sketches offer a mean to offload your brain's STM of ideas to an external medium. This makes the STM available for fresher ideas as you can always look at your sketch for reference to older ideas. Thus, adding a facility to sketch while people are chatting can encourage fresh ideas or just pure fun. This IM environment also lets you play Tic-Tac-Toe and 'connect the dots' in case you were looking for some less serious applications. There are few restrictions like how well one can draw with a mouse, absence of instant updates at the receivers end over a slow connection. A provision to copy paste existing pictures would help. Albeit the Yahoo! Doodle is a significant step towards instant electronic collaboration.

This article was first published in ZDNet on September 6, 2002.