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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Real-Time Collaborative Editing

A while ago I asked in several places if people knew of a text or document editor that would allow real-time collaborative editing during a conference session (or workshop, seminar, course, etc.). My main requirements were:
  1. Easy to use
  2. Easy to distribute (give everyone a URL)
  3. No download required
  4. Support chat and document editing
At the time, I didn't get very good responses. OneNote and Gobby require installation. MoonEdit and TwitterNotes were suggested as well. None quite fit.

Well I think I just found it... and it's called EtherPad. It's pretty ugly, but it does exactly what I asked for. People come in easily and just put their names in there.

Couple of notes:
  • I've only used this for a small test. If you use it for anything bigger, please let me know.
  • I think that a key ingredient is setting things up ahead of time so people will know what to do. Random notes may not be a great effect. It needs to be used with a purpose.
  • Still it may be more interesting to get a collective set of notes and chat, especially with some structure. (More on this below.)
Doesn't Google docs already do all of this? Actually, no it really doesn't work that well for what I want. When you have several people editing a document at the same time in Google Docs, it takes about 5 seconds for an edit to show up. That latency causes lots of confusion.

Google Spreadsheet handles real-time editing (using the cells as protectors) much better.

Also, I still don't understand why Google Docs don't have notifications of changes like Google Spreadsheet. That has to be one of the worst decisions they made on the product. But now I'm on a tangent.

Google Docs are much harder to share with other people. Trying to share it at a conference would be a lot harder. And people need to have a Google account.

Google Docs doesn't highlight who is doing what.

In short, Google Docs isn't really made for real-time editing.

While I'm on the subject of real-time collaborative editing, I just had a fantastic experience via Robin Good where he used MindMeister to allow participants to collectively edit a Mind Map during a session at the Learning Trends.

This mind map started with just the first level nodes that represented the categories. He asked people to add to those and people started typing in all sorts of things. It was very interesting to see.

I still think the most powerful work example for this has been real-time collaborative editing of Google Spreadsheets that contain project status reports. You get the team online at the same time and you can all talk and edit to get the status updates, next steps assigned in a very short period of time. It's really a fantastic effect.

It's exciting to see real-time collaboration (something I worked on 15 years ago while I was a Ph.D. student) finally taking off in the real-world.


Matt Wolf said...

wow, I'll have to check this out. I was looking for precisely this about a month ago and finally just settled for a wiki.

I imagine there is a lot of attention focus and look forward to seeing what the future holds in this technology.

Anonymous said...

I would like this same function only with video where everybody would chat while the video is playing. I know Yahoo chat will do this. Any other options out there?

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Can see lots of uses for this. Am going to have to see if this can be accessed through our corporate firewall/proxy. Fingers crossed.

HueiHsien Liu said...

Wow! How did you realize that one day people will need to collect notes with real-time collaborative editor while meeting?
I also had bad experience with Google Doc. It drove me nuts. So I completely agree with you.
Thanks for sharing this piece of new information about the tool "EtherPad"!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

Thanks for this, which I read in November, but only recently got round to trying it out. Apparently the noo version is what's up now - never saw the earlier version.

This one looks as if it has some potential.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth