The future of hybrid work that Microsoft sees as people start to return to offices and workplaces — at least some of the time — still includes remote collaboration, some of it asynchronous and some of it real time.
“During the pandemic, what’s really come to the fore is team productivity: enabling a group of people to work together,” Microsoft executive vice president for experiences and devices Rhajesh Jha said at the recent Build conference. “We think this is the era of collaborative apps where collaboration is at this centre, whether it be synchronous in the context of a video meeting, whether it be asynchronous with documents and chat.”
“Collaboration is going to have to be the core of new applications,” Jha added.
The technology Microsoft is pinning its hopes on to deliver this new group productivity is open-source framework Fluid.
Interactive Fluid components will bring real-time, low-latency web editing into Teams and other Office apps, but they can also let people collaborate asynchronously. Fluid will make co-editing a document faster because everyone’s changes show up quicker for everyone else, but a list, table or set of action items can also be Fluid components that everyone can co-author and edit in their own time.
Teams is the logical place to do that, because you can use it as a launcher for other apps, including running them inside meetings. Fluid components are now in private preview for Microsoft 365 (currently by invitation only, with broader access coming in the next few months).
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A Fluid component can be pinned to a specific chat where you’re collaborating, or you can copy and paste a Fluid component from one Teams chat to another to get more people involved. You can also copy them into an email message (or eventually, a Word document) and the data that makes up the Fluid ‘chunk’ of collaboration will stay live and editable and carry on syncing to everyone.
Because it doesn’t need a cache on the server or a real-time hub on the client, Fluid real-time collaboration is actually a simpler back-end architecture, according to a session Fluid software engineer Sam Broner gave at Build. “Teams have found that Fluid can replace key pieces of their architecture, but with improved performance and lower engineering cost,” Broner noted.
Fluid for everyone
The open-source Fluid Framework means Fluid components can also be built into third-party apps, which can use SharePoint in Microsoft 365 (which Teams uses), or the new Azure Fluid Relay Service (a managed service that will scale to hundreds of users per session) or any other Fluid service as the backend for syncing changes between co-workers. A Fluid component built to run with one Fluid backend will work with another Fluid backend, so organisations can use their own instance of the Azure Fluid Relay Service or local Fluid service (although everyone collaborating would need to be using the same Fluid service to work together).
Developers building Fluid components can also create their own different kinds of Fluid data, like sticky notes or exploded 3D diagrams based on CAD files.
As well as demos of Fluid in Teams and Outlook, Microsoft showed prototype apps built by Autodesk, Officeatwork and Monday Coffee that use Fluid for different kinds of real-time collaboration. Autodesk showed a CAD viewer where two people could look at the same 3D object and see what view the other person was looking at (which would simplify a discussion, because you can point to things the way you would if you were both in front of the same screen). Their 3D viewer (and an inspector that shows the state of your Fluid data) are now part of the open-source Fluid Framework.
“All of our customers expect to be able to collaborate across teams, tools, and industries,” Autodesk chief platform architect Arno Zinke said. “In the future, the architect of a building will collaborate more directly with another architect or with designers and manufacturers or even with suppliers of parts like windows and HVACs. And all of this [collaboration] will happen based on the same data, the most recent data, in real time.”
Officeatwork showed a prototype of Fluid in their Office add-in for dynamic placeholders that put the correct logo, company information, official signature files and other data that you want to have be consistent in all your documents, which can be stored in SharePoint or collected through a Power Automate flow, Logic Apps or other line-of-business data stores. Using the Azure Fluid Relay Service, two people working in the Officeatwork admin centre will be able to collaborate on a signature that will be used by multiple people, making edits to the same placeholder, which will dynamically update for users too.
Developers who want to build apps for Teams using Fluid components can package those apps using the standard Teams SDK and use the Fluid Library for Microsoft 365, which will be built into Microsoft 365 tenants, rather than expecting organisations to spin up their own Azure Fluid Relay Service. That means those apps can use Office single-sign on and get data from the Microsoft Graph, and store data in Fluid files that live in OneDrive and SharePoint (using the SharePoint Fluid Service), so it stays inside the Microsoft 365 tenant. Installing the app into Teams and adding it to a Teams meeting sets the permissions so that everyone in the meeting has access to the Fluid file and can collaborate in it.
“Teams meetings extension points provide the ideal place to include Fluid-powered collaboration,” Fluid program manager Dan Roney said.
MondayCoffee showed a prototype meeting notes tool built for teams with the Fluid Framework Libraries, where everyone can take their notes about the meeting in a structured, shared document. Information is written to a database so it’s easy to keep track of all the decisions taken for a specific project, or action items that are automatically converted into Planner tasks.
That prototype will be added to the MondayCoffee Teams app soon, along with extra features like shared sticky notes.
Developers and organizations wanting to use Azure Fluid Relay or Fluid Library for Microsoft 365 can apply for the private preview. Fluid components are just web apps; Fluid works with any Vue framework like React, Angular or Vue, with the collaborative features wrapped in a web library. And if you just want to try out the Fluid collaboration in share documents, the original Fluid Office preview is still available. Or you can play around with a Fluid image gallery, brainstorming app and even a shared Sudoku game in the Fluid Framework playground, and developers can copy the Fluid projects to start building their own apps.