Portland, Oregon based Lunarr is launching a deceptively simple looking collaboration platform tomorrow and we've got invites for the first 200 readers who want to check it out (see bold line below). The company had a very nice launch party tonight and they give a heck of a demo - but here's what I think after using it just a bit myself.
Lunarr aims to solve two problems: version confusion and lost email conversations. The company's solution is like a wiki with site-mail, but there's a certain elegance to how it's implemented. The service has some real shortcomings, but given its Alpha state there's time for improvement. If you'd like to check it out yourself, send an email to email@example.com to request an account.
Here's how the service works. While most annotation and collaboration tools let users write on top of objects or around them via all-too-often complex asset management systems - Lunarr employs a fundamentally different metaphor. Their document-centric approach lets collaborators share a common asset like a Word doc, a live web page or even Google Apps like a spreadsheet - and "write" on the "back" of each asset using what's essentially a focused, personal webmail client. One click on a tab flips the view to the metaphorical back of an asset where messages are sent and received between users concerning just that single asset itself.
Cofounder Hideshi Hamaguchi, who probably has a career as a poet in his future if this doesn't work out, says that Lunarr leverages the creative tension between structure and chaos. In that mental place, Hamaguchi says, we just may find more time for creativity in our work. I buy that.
Now to some of the problems.
I can imagine investing some time into learning to use Lunarr right away, but will hold off on doing anything serious with it for now. I look forward to using the service to share notes about company pitch emails, for example, with teammates here at Read/WriteWeb.
There's quite a number of issues with the service at launch. There's no data export option. It doesn't publish RSS feeds, much less take them in. Notification in general needs a lot of improvement. It doesn't handle Word documents other than as a link to a download - you are supposed to compose original text in Lunarr and then copy and paste elsewhere! It does handle live web pages well. Site navigation on Lunarr itself is confusing - it's an entirely AJAX site for one thing so don't hit delete at the wrong time or you'll be logged out. Site navigation is not at all intuitive - other than the elegant flip to the back of a document. The interface is sparse, but the few decisions it does make don't accurately predict the questions my eye and hand ask it.
There doesn't appear to be any parsing of the content you're collaborating about - a lost opportunity. In that I wish it was more like the Austrian tool SystemOne, which dynamically recommends document pages, posts in your OPML file and other resources from around the web - in real time as you type up a document. Lunarr doesn't do anything with my content but let me write on the back of it.. That could be solved by integrating this company into another one, but you've got to wonder how much barrier to entry there is around Lunarr's technology.
The world does need more and better online collaboration tools, I agree with the company on that. I think they've also taken some great steps toward solving the problem of random email threads all over your inbox. Version confusion can be solved by any wiki or similar service, but wikis are scary for many people and Lunarr looks friendly.
Lunarr says that someday it will license its technology, but the company is very well funded via the previous success of the founders and I'm sure they envision an acquisition well before licensing starts. That could happen.
I've got high hopes for this company. The core metaphor is very pleasing and Toru Takasuka and Hideshi Hamaguchi, the two Japanese transplants who founded the company, are remarkably dynamic. I want it to work. Rafe Needleman generously says Lunarr is "not quite ready for prime time." Tom Foremski says, "Lunarr is completely fascinating and I meet maybe 2 to 3 companies per year that fall into this category." I agree with both.