Web-based communities can provide a great venue for collaboration--but there's nothing great about having a backlog of pages for one person to update. Enter Sparrow Web, a Java-based program from Xerox Palo Alto Research Center that's in beta testing. It's designed to simplify, and democratize, Web-based collaboration by allowing all members of a designated group to edit Web pages even if they lack HTML skills.
Sparrow Web's "secret weapon" is a little black triangle, says Eric Bier, PARC principal scientist. That icon is used to indicate which Web-page sections are editable. When users click on the black triangle, a dialog box appears, allowing them to edit a paragraph of text, a table of figures, or other individual elements of a page. The program's templates take care of the formatting, so no worries about whether text should be bold or indented. And unlike other Web-editing applications, Sparrow Web (beta version available for download at alphaave.com) makes it possible to edit dynamic pages, not just large text blocks.
PARC's hardware support group has been using Sparrow Web internally to track system maintenance since its initial creation in '96. But this year, Sparrow Web beta testing began in earnest. Search engine Google Inc. began using it in July for internal project management, and three school districts in California are taking it for a test drive. At Stanford University, a graduate engineering class that's working on engineering projects for several large auto manufacturers is using it for Web collaboration with team members located overseas.
David Cannon, a Stanford mechanical engineering graduate student and class coach who led the initial assessment of Sparrow Web in September, liked its ease-of-use. "We were able to get the initial pages up in a few days," says Cannon. Sparrow Web isn't backed by a database, which simplified the set up. "I've worked with database-backed sites before, and they require significant upfront planning," he says. Now, students are using Web pages more frequently to post project updates, instead of relying on E-mail communication. For Stanford, it was important to have editable Web pages that were more than big text blocks--especially since they're also viewed by project sponsors like Ford Motor Co. and Toyota. "We get quite a bit of money from sponsor companies," Cannon says. "We want to show good results."