All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

Web-based Collaboration Round-up

New on the collaboration scene are three new web-based tools that aim to provide a services to enable multiple people to edit a document from a web browser. These are Writely, JotSpot Live, and Writeboard. Here follows a quick first-impression review of all three.

My key objectives were to get up and running quickly (so that the tool was out of the way of the task) and to be able to share the document and collaborate with a small group of web-savvy friends. So easy wasn’t as important as simple – if you get what I mean. So here goes.


Having seen Writeboard had launched, I jumped straight in and signed up. Creating a new document was a matter of a few seconds’ work, so top marks for getting up and running quickly. It’s certainly something you could do ‘on the fly’ without keeping a room of people waiting. I was also able to invite my friends in by entering the email address of a mailing list – another good time-saver. I’d hate to have to dig out all those email addresses.

Each edit to the document creates a new version – just like a wiki. In fact (and despite 37signals’ protestations to the contrary) it is just a one page wiki. Selecting two versions enables them to be diffed quite easily, although there’s no way to merge any changes. This became a particular problem as everyone logged on and started making edits to the document. We ended up overwriting each other’s work and it became a total mess. Although I could look back through previous versions, there’s no way to merge in changes.

So with no file locking (like a real wiki) and no way to merge changes, Write board is very quick and easy, but pretty useless for collaboration. It’s a shame because it showed promise. Hopefully 37signals will introduce either file locking (to stop multiple people editing at once) or provide a way to merge different versions. Until that point it’s no use to me.

JotSpot Live

After the subtle and elegant UI of Writeboard, JotSpot Live weighs in with its own brand of ugly. But never mind the look and feel, it’s more important that it works well.

The signup process was easy, although not as quick as Writeboard. The free account allows up to 5 pages, but with unlimited users. JotSpot Live focuses more on real-time collaboration, closer to something like SubEthaEdit. Or so I’m told.

Creating a document was simple, and the editing process takes a line-by-line micro-field approach. I guess it makes more sense splitting a document up into lots of bite-sized or line-sized chunks to enable multiple authors. Something that perhaps Writeboard could learn from. The keyboard navigation is good (up and down arrows to navigated editable lines, Enter to edit) so your hands don’t need to leave the keyboard.

When it came to inviting my friends in, I again entered the email address of the mailing list and hit invite. This is where JotSpot Live fell down – the invitation it sent could only be responded to once, by a single person. So quick-on-the-draw Jon Hicks got in, and the others were left out in the cold with a 404 message. Not so good.

If I was wanting to use this for real, I’d need to go dig out a whole heap of email addresses and copy and paste them one-by-one into the Invite field. That’s too much effort and not conducive to getting things done. The software got in the way too much, so I left it there.


Writely has to be the first web-breed web app I’ve seen written in Asp.Net. People out there are building stuff in Asp.Net! Who knew? I’d heard lots of good things about this service on (I think) the Web 2.0 Show so was looking forward to trying it out. Unfortunately I didn’t get too far.

The first hurdle was that they don’t support Safari. Although that’s no great problem for any web developer with a good few dozen different browsers resident on their system, it would be a problem for a lot of the people I work with in my day job – they’re all on Macs and use Safari. They don’t have Firefox because they don’t need it. Having to download and set up a new browser officially qualifies as getting in the way, but I’ll forgive that one and proceed. Safari can be a pain for client-side development sometimes.

Signing up for an account was again no problem, although I did feel a slight sense of distrust for some reason, and so used a throw-away email address. I think it’s because there was no explicit same-page note that they’d not spam me. Writeboard had that, and I felt safer because of it.

Creating a new document spawned a non-resizeable popup window with no scroll bars. No usually a problem, except for the fact that the page contained within was far, far larger than the tiny popup. Nifty keyboard skills somehow got me through the form half-blind, including entering the list email address to invite others. As far as I can tell that email never got sent.

Ok’ing the popup took me back to the main page which was now displaying a message saying that I was blocking popups (I was) and that I’d need to turn that off to proceed. Having seen the state of their popups I decided I’d rather not. It was all too much effort so I gave up.


The purpose of this test was to find a collaboration tool I could use quickly with minimum fuss. I needed something that got out of the way and let me collaborate. For that reason, I gave up pretty easily on Writely and JotSpot Live. I’m not saying that they are terrible services, but they look like services that require more effort than my (pretty strict) criteria allowed for.

Writeboard, on the other hand truly did get out of the way and let me and my friends get right into it. If they could just sort out the problems making collaboration impossible then I’m sure it’ll be a useful service.

So all in all, the best of the bad bunch (apply your pinches of salt here) is Writeboard, which in itself destroys your document too easily. Ah well.

Guess I’ll be sticking with Project Collaborate for a while yet.