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6/30/2009
12:58 PM
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Beyond Google Docs: 7 Web-Based Collaboration Apps

Along with the search-engine giant's popular collaboration tools, we look at Zoho Writer, Pastebin, Dabbleboard, Dimdim, Yugma, and Bubbl.us.






Pastebin is aptly named: just paste and save to let others read your plain text.
(click for image gallery)

Here's a scenario you're probably all too familiar with: Create document. Send to other party. Wait. Get back revisions. Edit. Send back. Wait. Get back other revisions. Edit. And so on. Given that you've both got network connections, wouldn't it make sense to find some way to collaborate on the same document, either in real time or as close to it as possible?

In this article I'll look at several Web services that let you and others edit and revise different kinds of documents collaboratively directly online. (I didn't include services such as Microsoft Office Live Workspace, where you have to edit the file in your local application and re-post it to the service.)

Up until recently, realtime collaboration on documents was something limited to specific software packages. But thanks to the Web, it's now possible to work together on many common document types, often in real time and often also without paying a cent.

What was pleasantly surprising to discover was the sheer breadth of tools available. If you want nothing more than a place to temporarily dump some text, there's Pastebin or Writeboard; if you want document-level collaboration, consider Zoho Writer or Google Docs; and for more general desktop and application sharing, there are services like Yugma. It's possible to find, with very little effort, the exact grade of collaborative service you'd need for your particular workload.

Pastebin

Pastebin started as a programmer's tool, and to a great degree it still is, but it's used by a great many more kinds of folks than just programmers. The name sums up the idea: you paste in a piece of text, with your choice of syntax highlighting, and access it through a short URL which you can then pass on to others.

You can also elect to password-protect entries (via a custom domain name), or even set up your own Pastebin server with the General Public License source code for the site. You can also set up a term of expiry for a particular Pastebin entry. The default is one month, but you might want things to last a bit longer.

Pastebin isn't meant to be more than a depository for text. There's no interactive editing and only the most primitive revision control (edits create a new version of a document), but for quick-and-dirty text sharing, it's just about perfect.

Google Docs

For many people, Google Docs is the default collaborative environment on the Web: it's fast, it works extremely well, and if you don't already have a Google account you can create one in seconds. Its biggest limitation, at least for now, is that it doesn't have much in the way of live collaboration: you have to take turns editing and passing changes back and forth.




Zoho enables simultaneous editing and collaborative discussion of a document.
(click for image gallery)

After creating or uploading a document, you can invite other people to edit it or simply view it. If two parties open a document at the same time, Google Docs makes a best attempt to merge differences between the two, and tracks every single person's revisions in a very detailed fashion. The differences are only available in a separate window, though; they're not actually shown in-line as they happen. You can send e-mails back and forth to your collaborators, but there's no real-time chat system -- apart from perhaps Google Talk, although you have to invoke that manually between you and the other person.

My favorite feature with Google Docs: offline editing via Google Gears or the Chrome browser. Document check-in and -out works properly with it, as it ought to, so you can later merge multiple versions of work done offline by multiple parties. Finally, Google Docs has accurate enough document conversion for most basic texts that you can always compose offline in your word processor of choice, then upload into Docs to do the actual sharing and editing.

Zoho Writer

A strong competitor for Google Docs, Zoho Writer lets you invite collaborators to either examine as read-only or read and work on documents you've prepared. Read-only mode presents the document as a static Web page -- more or less the same view you get when you simply publish a Zoho document to the world -- but for full read/write access, the other user must have a Zoho account. Fortunately it isn't hard to set one up.

The best thing about Zoho is how it handles simultaneous editing of a document. If you edit a document that someone else has open, everyone involved gets notified of this, and any parts of the document being edited by the other person are marked as read only. Changes to the document appear in real-time, too. You can also chat in real time with other people working on the same documents, so you can actively discuss changes as they're being put into effect.

The other nice thing about Zoho is how all of its features are possible with only a basic Web browser -- no add-ons or Flash are required to make the magic happen, just JavaScript and AJAX. This means even people with extremely basic Web browsing capacity (by today's standards) can make full use of it.

DabbleBoard

DabbleBoard's almost exactly what it sounds like: a collaborative whiteboard application. You and your partners can draw freehand, insert pictures and text annotations, and chat back and forth with each other. It's all Flash-driven, so it's not limited by the constraints of dynamic HTML or the browser itself.

One can get started with a trial DabbleBoard canvas without even so much as having to log in. Documents can be imported and pasted into the canvas, and canvases can also span multiple pages -- hugely useful if you want to do multipart presentations that don't fit comfortably onto one screen. I also liked how objects on the canvas can be manipulated very precisely by typing in coordinates or otherwise manually specifying properties, instead of just being dragged around.

Drawing freehand on a DabbleBoard canvas works one of two ways: you can either just draw any shape (sort of like scribbling with a marker), or you can elect to have the canvas guess what kind of shape you're trying to make (circle, square, triangle, etc.). The guessing algorithm's pretty accurate, although sometimes drawing shapes inside other shapes got it confused.




Dimdim combines whiteboarding, screen sharing, and text/video chat all under one roof.
(click for image gallery)

A finished canvas can be downloaded or saved as a .PNG file. Basic services are free, but professional-level features (SSL access, permissions, support calls, saving as more sophisticated document formats) are available for sliding fees. Voice and video chat are also available through the tokbox.com affiliate service.

Dimdim

Despite the silly name, Dimdim corrals together an amazing number of meeting and collaboration tools in one place. It's primarily a Web meeting system rather than a collaboration system, but there are just enough collaborative elements (whiteboard, for instance) to make it worth mentioning here. The free version supports meetings with up to 20 people at once, and the for-pay editions of the service allow much bigger audiences.

Even an abbreviated list of all the services available through Dimdim is an eye-opener: audio/video sharing through Webcams; live screen sharing (this requires a plugin, though); synchronized Web browsing; whiteboarding; document sharing; the ability to record meetings; and even dial-in support for people who just want to listen and talk by phone.

Obviously all of this power comes with a few technical limitations. Flash is required and only Internet Explorer and Firefox are supported. Also, the only kinds of documents you can share are PDFs or PowerPoint documents; Word isn't directly supported. One possible workaround would be to upload a PDF-converted document or just point people towards a Web page with the text.

If you want to run your own Dimdim server, you can grab a copy of the source code and do so.

Yugma

Another oddly named site with a great mix of features, Yugma centers around being able to collaborate from your own desktop in real time. In other words, you're not confined to uploading a document somewhere and sharing that: you can point to an application running on your own machine and share it. It runs on all three major platforms -- Windows, Mac, and Linux -- and the free version works with up to 20 people. Other editions go from $15 a month to $180 a month.




Bubbl.us doesn't offer much beyond collaborative flowcharting, but does that well.
(click for image gallery)

Unlike other tools listed here, Yugma isn't wholly a Web-based product; there's a download that must be installed on the presenter's machine to run things. If people want to participate in the presentation in a viewing-only mode, they just need a Web browser with Java. Control over the meeting (including control over shared desktop apps) can also be delegated to others during the session, provided they have the software on their end.

People can also dial in by conventional phone and share in the conference by voice. For those on Skype, there's a Yugma add-on for that well-known Internet phone application that lets you invite existing Skype users into a Yugma session.

Bubbl.us

Yet another goofily named site that's actually quite useful, Bubbl.us allows users to collaboratively create "mind maps" or organizational flowcharts. It's sort of like a stripped-down version of DabbleBoard, since its tools specifically center around mind maps, but the level of control and detail you have over the objects in the maps you create is impressive.

You don't need to create an account with Bubbl.us to start making mind maps, but you'll have that many more options at your command if you do (sharing, etc.). The behavior of the mind-map editor is a little quirky at first, but you quickly get used to it -- you grab and drag anywhere blank to scroll around the map, and hover over existing objects to expose their control handles and editing options. The finished sheet can be exported as HTML or XML.

A 2.0 version of Bubbl.us is under wraps but still quite usable. From what can be seen so far, it sports an Office ribbon-like interface and a slightly cleaner presentation, although the basic toolset is the same. Future projected features include real-time collaboration and site-wide search for saved sheets.


InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the next-generation Web applications. Download the report here (registration required).

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