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Startup Pushes Open Source Document Collaboration

Zimbra is lobbying for an Ajax standard that lets several users simultaneously alter dynamic content--spreadsheets, charts, texts, or Web site information--through an online interface.

A document collaboration startup wants to serve ALE at the Web 2.0 party, and it's beating some big competitors to the punch.


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Zimbra, a company that's collected $30.5 million in funding since October, provides a set of online applications that includes e-mail, calendars, and spreadsheets. The company has added Zimbra Documents, its first app to use its proposed Ajax Linking and Embedding standard. ALE lets several users simultaneously alter dynamic content--spreadsheets, charts, texts, or Web site information--through an online interface.

The ALE in Zimbra Documents is similar to a wiki, says Anne Manes, an analyst with Burton Group. Different users can edit a document at the same time, and Zimbra's tool rolls up the changes into a new joint document. Each author using the tool works in his or her own browser window, without regard to a master document. Instead of working with a command-line editor, as wiki authors often do, the Zimbra Documents editor lets authors work with content in the same HTML format in which it will appear. It's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get tool.

The ALE name borrows from Microsoft's predecessor technology, Object Linking and Embedding, which allows a similar cut-and-paste effect within Office desktop apps. Open source ALE, in contrast, can run on any platform with a browser.

The Big Contenders

Microsoft is working on collaborative online extensions to its existing Office applications. Such extensions could be based on Atlas, a Microsoft proprietary equivalent of Ajax. But Microsoft doesn't expect to release Atlas until next year.

Google said last week that it's bringing its Ajax expertise to bear on the hosted collaborative application market with Google Apps for Your Domain, which includes e-mail, instant messaging, and calendaring. Google hopes to add online document creation to the suite later this year.

Zimbra proposed the ALE specification to the OpenAjax consortium in April, seeking to make it a standard way of building interactive Ajax elements into documents. But getting Zimbra's ALE established as a standard won't be easy, Manes says. There's contention among more than 100 Ajax toolkits. Moreover, ALE's supporting technology for Zimbra's Collaboration Suite is Java-oriented, and not all Ajax programmers will want to go the complex Java 2 Enterprise Edition route.

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