From: Rohit Khare (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed May 03 2000 - 21:35:17 PDT
>The Sharedshell program works like a cross between a collaborative
>application such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Net Meeting and a
>customer relationship management application such as those sold by
>Siebel Systems (Nasdaq: SEBL). The user interface reflects its
>intended audience; clearly readable code trumps the need for pretty
>Next up for Mr. Tang's clan is to develop an instant messenger
>client that gives people in the workplace more control over who
>contacts them and when. Part of this plan includes making instant
>messenger software that's more tightly integrated with other
>communications applications such as calendars and personal
>The computer knows a lot about our activities and whereabouts, Mr.
>Tang says. If a program could take advantage of all that available
>information and put it to good use, it may make being always
>connected more productive and less annoying than it is now.
Lab Rat: Sun Labs creates groupware for geeks
By Phil Harvey
Redherring.com, May 04, 2000
Sun Labs researchers have made an important discovery: customers
aren't the only ones with customer service problems.
It's not an easy job diagnosing server problems over the telephone.
The customer support engineer, as they're called in some companies,
starts off at a disadvantage because he's probably never seen his
customer's network. He'll just have to let the customer tell him
what's connected to what.
Then, assuming typing in some lines of code can solve the problem,
those lines must be read to the customer, who should repeat them back
for accuracy. Ever tried that with Unix? You could be on the phone a
The soup thickens if the customer happens to be calling from a noisy
equipment room, when the din of whirring computer fans and rattling
air-conditioner vents adds to the cacophony. And, if the customer has
a heavy accent, you may have to repeat some of that Unix poetry more
than once. If that weren't enough, the problem might also be so
complex that the support engineer will require additional assistance
from another engineer at a different location.
TODAY'S TOM SAWYER
Such scenarios aren't just sketch comedy to the three researchers who
make up Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) Laboratories's Networked
Communities group. The group has spent the past two years studying
ways to use the Internet to help people in different locations come
together to solve technical support problems for Sun's customers.
In some ways, the researchers embody the problems they're working to
solve. Design lead John Tang and software engineer James "Bo" Begole
work in Sun's Menlo Park, California, facility. The group's principal
investigator, Nicole Yankelovich, works in Burlington, Massachusetts.
After studying three different Sun technical support groups in three
months, Mr. Tang's team developed Sharedshell, a program that lets
several users overcome geographic distances and network firewalls to
work on technical support problems. The Java-based program provides a
common point of reference that lets its users augment their phone
conversations with the ability to do things such as draw network
diagrams and exchange computer code.
In short, Sharedshell attempts to balance the two most common
extremes of customer service. The first is that of doing everything
for the customer. It's a nice idea, but too costly for most
companies. The other is the stupid notion that customers should have
to do everything themselves, such as scouring a Web site's frequently
asked questions (FAQ) pages for an answer.
The latter approach is what Mr. Tang calls the "Tom Sawyer effect,"
where customers are convinced to do more and more work to solve their
problems. The pendulum needs to swing the other direction, he says,
so that people are able to get other people to guide them, allowing
them to learn along the way.
SHOW ME, DON'T TELL ME
The Sharedshell program works like a cross between a collaborative
application such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Net Meeting and a
customer relationship management application such as those sold by
Siebel Systems (Nasdaq: SEBL). The user interface reflects its
intended audience; clearly readable code trumps the need for pretty
A Sharedshell conference is initiated when the customer launches the
program and invites a support engineer along to work on the problem.
To ensure that network security isn't compromised, the Sharedshell
program arranges for the customer and support person to rendezvous at
a server outside both companies' firewalls.
During a Sharedshell session, participants' names and actions appear
in different colors to distinguish who drew or typed what. Each
session is time-stamped and archived by Sun's technical support group
so that the drawings and transcripts of the call can be used later.
Other participants can be added to a Sharedshell session with little
effort. This helps string together the smartest minds in the support
group at a moment's notice. It doesn't matter who types the commands
to fix the customer's machine; Sharedshell forces the customer, at
some level, to grant permission before anything is final.
Of course, Sharedshell doesn't try to replace the old way of
providing technical support. Instead, it is used while both parties
are on the phone together. This show-and-tell format helps customers
learn how to solve the problem they're calling about, should it ever
occur again. Likewise, support engineers can rest easy knowing they
likely won't have to solve the same problem for the same customer
Sharedshell also seems to save time when a problem is so complex it
requires the work of more than one support person in more than one
location. The program's user doesn't have to wait for a senior
engineer to answer his email, and, in turn, the customer is less
likely to be passed around to the point of boiling frustration.
The security precautions also help support engineers solve problems,
while reminding the customer that he's in the driver's seat. That's
important because even when a customer's dead wrong, he's been told
he's always right.
TEST FOR ECHO
However, Sharedshell could use some polish when it comes to
personalization. The demo I saw didn't offer the support engineer any
context for dealing with his caller. Perhaps if it did, the program
could help support engineers to better size up who's on the other end
of the line.
That's not Mr. Tang's problem any longer, though. Sharedshell is now
in the care of Sun's Enterprise Services group, where it will make
the leap from research project to licensable product.
Next up for Mr. Tang's clan is to develop an instant messenger client
that gives people in the workplace more control over who contacts
them and when. Part of this plan includes making instant messenger
software that's more tightly integrated with other communications
applications such as calendars and personal information managers.
The computer knows a lot about our activities and whereabouts, Mr.
Tang says. If a program could take advantage of all that available
information and put it to good use, it may make being always
connected more productive and less annoying than it is now.
Discuss today's Lab Rat column in the Lab Rat column discussion, or
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