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10/17/2013
02:57 PM
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Mozilla Launches Real-Time Web Collaboration Framework

TogetherJS framework expands Mozilla's TowTruck collaboration technology for the Web.

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Mozilla, long known for its commitment to open, collaborative development, wants to make it easier for online publishers to encourage collaboration on their websites.

On Thursday, the company introduced TogetherJS, a JavaScript framework that simplifies the process of adding real-time collaboration features to any Web page.

In May 2009, when Google launched Google Wave at its developer conference, real-time collaboration across browsers represented the cutting edge of Web technology. Four years later, collaboration can be implemented as an afterthought.

As Ian Bicking, engineer at Mozilla, and Robert Nyman, technical evangelist at Mozilla, explain in a blog post, TogetherJS allows website visitors to see each other's mouse position on screen, to follow each other's browsing, to edit Web forms or watch videos together and to chat via audio and WebRTC.

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To those who follow Web technology closely, this might evoke a sense of deja vu. The introduction of TogetherJS is really the re-introduction of a Mozilla project called TowTruck that debuted in April.

TogetherJS is TowTruck under a new name, with new capabilities, including: auto-follow, which allows a user to follow another user to a different Web page; participant windows, which provide information about other users in an active collaboration session; profile settings, which allow avatar selection and color customization; revised notifications, which provide a clearer sense of what other participants are doing; and mobile device support.

The framework remains extremely simple to implement. Mozilla has made it possible to add collaboration to any website with only a few lines of code. However, not all browsers can handle TogetherJS: Web Sockets support is required. Recent versions of popular Web browsers support Web Sockets, but Mozilla recommends either Firefox or Chrome. WebRTC support is required for audio chat.

Developers looking to implement real-time collaboration on their websites have other options. Google in March released the Google Drive Realtime API for adding collaboration via JavaScript. There's also Firebase, a platform-as-a-service offering for collaborative applications. These options offer persistence, explain Bicking and Nyman, while TogetherJS does not -- it handles synchronization between browsers but not the storage of data.

TogetherJS assumes users will be happy using Mozilla's hub server for coordination. For companies that can't do this for security reasons, it's also possible to host one's own hub server.

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