Microsoft showed me its wacky new work sharing app -- it's so crazy it just might work

Nestled away in the announcement that Microsoft Office 2016 for Windows is now available is the news that Microsoft GigJam, one of the company’s weirdest and most experimental new apps, is entering a private preview phase for a few trial customers.

When GigJam was first announced this past July, it was hard to understand.

But I witnessed a demo at a Microsoft Office press event last night, and I have to say: GigJam is so crazy that it just might work.

“We’ve invented a new method of communication,” says Microsoft engineer Vijay Mital, head of the GigJam project.

Basically, you pull up a bunch of business data from various sources — Salesforce, Outlook, Microsoft Office 365, LinkedIn, whatever — either by typing or by simply telling Cortana (Microsoft’s virtual assistant) what you want. In the demo, a Microsoft employee pulled up his list of Salesforce projects just by saying “bring up my projects.”

Once you have the data you want to work with, you literally use your mouse or finger to circle it. Anything you specifically don’t want to share, you X out.

In this example, all three columns will get shared — with the exception of an internal project number and the fact that that he’s using Outlook, because the employee X’ed those out.

Mital calls each individual bit of separate, shareable data “the molecules of work.”

Then, you invite others to work with you.

Microsoft is readying GigJam apps for Windows 7 through 10, the Mac, iOS, and eventually Android, Mital says, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a GigJam buddy. But they will still need the app to see it, and there’s no browser-based version currently planned, Mital says.

They only see what you let them see. On an iPhone, it works in exactly the same way, and they can add and send their own information back:

It’s designed to provide a little more privacy than just broadcasting your entire desktop to a coworker or outside contractor, since you can control what gets shared.

And it’s a little more productive than email, since you don’t need to take the time to take screenshots or copy and paste the relevant data before you send it along.

You just pull up your stuff, choose what you want to share, and go. GigJam may never kill email or phone calls, but it can at least save you a lot of “15-minute phone calls” or pointless back-and-forth email threads, Mital says.

“We don’t want to talk. We want to get work done,” Mital says.

Out of the box, GigJam supports a bunch of common workplace apps, including Microsoft Outlook, Asana, SugarCRM, and Salesforce, Mital says. With those officially supported apps, you get the full ability to circle and cross out data fields with impunity.

But a bunch of other apps will have limited, but functional, GigJam integration. So long as those apps use a just-about-standard REST-based API (programmer-speak for the hooks that apps use to talk to each other), GigJam can at least suck in their data.

And to further the movement, Microsoft is also going to release a set of tools so developers can build in more GigJam-friendly features.

Of course, those outside developers will only do that if GigJam catches on. But from just a short demo, GigJam went from a big mystery to something that I can’t wait to experiment with. Fortunately, once it’s out of preview, GigJam will be available to Office 365 subscription service customers.

And who knows? Maybe it will start saving us all a few extra 15-minute phone calls every day.

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