Can someone build this for me?

Just last week, in UMW DTLT Land we were looking for a good web-based group writing tool for a faculty member’s project. What we wanted was sort of a wiki and sort of a chat–basically a tool that would allow a group of students to write a document together more or less synchronously. Our solution is probably going to involve an installation of MediaWiki (for collaborative writing) and using a tool like Sykpe (for chatting/talking about what is being collaborated on).

MediaWiki is a great wiki tool, and we’re sure it will work pretty well for this purpose. And Sykpe is, well, awesome, so it will well as a tool to discuss the writing that is being done. But this doesn’t feel like the best solution it could be. Wikis are great, but not perfect in this situation. Because they require a write-lock to be placed on a document when someone is making edits to a page, truly synchronous editing is impossible. And it would be nice if the Skype-like tool was truly integrated with the document editing tool.

What I really wanted was a web-based tool that would allow synchronous editing of a rich document (by “rich” I mean RTF-ish–images, links, good text formatting, etc.) with a IM/chat/meta-conversation component built in.

Within a few days of thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a tool that did this,” three possibilites have come to my attention.

First, via Stephen Downes, I discovered that JotLive (from the makers of JotSpot) is now available. It allows you to create a Web page/document and then invite others to work on it. The basic idea is a wiki, but more than one person can work on the document simultaneously. I should say that while I created a couple of pages for DTLT-ers to work on (and others have gone in and made edits), I’ve yet to be in there at the same time as someone else, so I’m not entirely sure how that looks and feels. I think there is definitely room for improvement with this product. Visual indicators of who has made what edit would be nice. Rollback and history features aren’t there but seem like a requirement for this to be really worthwhile. And I would love to see some kind of chat sidebar for people to discuss the work they are doing in the document space. Oh, and I want to be able to add pictures. That said, I think this has a lot of potential, and given JotSpot‘s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if other, cool features are around the bend.

On the other side of the playing field, SocialText has sponsored SynchroEdit, an “open source synchronous editor for the web.” Ross Mayfield blogged about the alpha release of it yesterday. At this time, there is only a sandbox to play in (and I’m still waiting for my account to be approved to get in), but the features look promising: wysiwyg collaborative editing and edits color-tagged for different authors. Again, looks promising, but I’d love to see that chat/IM feature added. Practically speaking, I just don’t want to be having the meta-conversation about the document I’m collaborating on inside the document itself–the same way on Wikipedia folks discuss the entries in the “discussion” section not in the entry itself.

Finally, Gardner Campbell brought to my attention a use for OneNote that he had come across at Chris_Pratley’s OneNote WebLog: shared group notebooks. Basically, using OneNote it is possible for a group of users to collaborate on a shared notebook, both synchronously and asynchronously (off-line edits are synced and merged when the user gets back online). All edits are tagged with information about who made them. It looks like with the upcoming release of OneNote 12, this will be even easier to do. Again, no separate space for discussion of the document, but still worth watching. Of course, my one complaint about this solution? I’m a Mac user. ‘Nuff said.

I’m hoping that while none of these solutions seem perfect right now, they all point in a general direction that we’re heading. Now that we’ve seen how great a wiki can be and now that we are starting to “get” the value of socially-constructed information, can we (and by “we” I mean other, smart people who know how to, like, program and stuff) create a great, new app that really tames (and enhances and extends) the social editing beast?

I’m waiting. . .

UPDATE: Wow, when it rains, it pours. Gardner Campbell just shared another synchronous writing tool: Writely. Check it out.

UPDATE II: I just tried to get an account at Writely and got the following message:

We’re very sorry, but we don’t currently support this browser.
Please try us on FireFox or Camino or Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher. Note that for Camino, you must have at least 1.0a1 or higher.You can get it here.

Last time I looked, I was using Firefox 1.0.4. Wait. I’m on a Mac. Is that the problem? Wouldn’t be the first time.

Update III: I managed to get into Writely, but only after updating Firefox to 1.0.7. What was weird about this was that I didn’t know there was a version 1.0.7 because when I ran my Firefox updates it was telling me there were none available. I had to go download it manually. I wonder what I was doing wrong.

In any case, after getting into Writely, I have to say I’m impressed. The editing features are more robust than either JotLive or SynchroEdit. I can upload images, do most basic text formatting, and there is a neat revision tool that allows me to view previous versions of the page. I’m still looking for a tool that allows simultaneous conversation about the document, but maybe that is just too pie in the sky.

4 thoughts on “Can someone build this for me?”

  1. There is a big difference between synchroedit and the others — we are developing it as open source, with a public protocol, good developer documentation, etc. This means there may be ultimately lots of services that use synchroedit, not just one.

  2. Thanks for the information Christopher. I should have noted this difference in my original post. The open-source nature of Synchroedit is enticing–and bodes well for future features and developments. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it in it’s full (non-alpha) version.

    In the meantime, since for our particular project time is of the essencce, these other products may just have to do 😉

  3. Sometimes I agree that it would be great to have an all-in-one tool, but it seems that what one person wants in their all-in-one tool is different from person to person. After all, if someone is used to AIM, why do you need a tool with a unfamiliar chat feature that doesn’t work as well as AIM? If you agree that AIM does chat pretty well, everyone (almost) knows how to use it and has an account, and you can run it in a window next to your wiki, why reinvent the wheel for the sake of an all-in-one solution? It just seems that when someone tries to build in lots of features, they make the whole thing more complicated than it needs to be. I think a “best of breed” approach might have some value too. By the way, one more wiki tool to look at is Writeboard from 37signals – easy to use and has a commenting feature!

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