Blogger: Craig Roth
This morning, Google announced it is buying a little company in San Francisco that enables real-time and asynchronous (offline) collaborative authoring of Microsoft Office docs called DocVerse. The founders of DocVerse are actually ex-Microsoft product folks.
As I wrote back in September 2008, I believe collaborative authoring is one of the top five trends for next generation authoring. The increase in technological solutions to the challenges of dealing with multiple authors has continued since then, with many approaches to different aspects of the problem.
First, we've seen responses from the big guys.
- Microsoft: Office 2010 provides a slew of simultaneous editing features (i.e., multiple cursors typing in different positions of the same document), some in conjunction with SharePoint 2010. Simultaneous editing was already in OneNote, but since that product is mostly relegated to simple note-taking status by all but a few aficionados, having it in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel is hitting the big time.
- Google: Google Docs allows multiple users to edit the same document in their own format, although in January they added the ability to share any file type (not with simultaneous editing).
To figure out who has the best answer requires knowing the problem you're trying to solve. The term "co-authoring" is vague and doesn't specify what aspects of multiple authors are being addressed. Is it:
- Check-in, check-out, and versioning: The most basic functionality required by multiple asynchronous authors is the ability to tag a document as "checked out" and file it back in later. Document management systems, collaborative workspaces, and source code control systems have provided this functionality for a long time. Let's skip right past this category.
- Review and Commenting: Often there is one document owner who writes most of the content and has primary responsibility for the finished product, but many reviewers whose input needs to be managed. Microsoft has promised to allow multiple reviewers to comment up a "single version of truth" document, which would solve many hassles involved with emailing documents around and merging changes. Other vendors such as TextFlow and Backboard have taken stabs at managing the review process. Managing the process (verifying reviewers have been heard from, that all comments have been addressed, etc.) is still not directly addressed and provides a more difficult procedural and cultural hurdle than technically figuring out how to merge comments.
- Simultaneous authoring: Students in classes that want to contribute to a single document of notes during a class have used SubEthaEdit, a basic text editor that has been around for quite a while and allows co-authoring with multiple cursors in documents. Zoho allows this too.
- Componentized authoring and content reuse: Except for shared note taking and intensive review sessions, simultaneous authoring is not very useful. What is more common is divvying up pieces of a deliverable to multiple authors for final assembly by a chief editor. This may involve assigning sections of a presentation deck to a series of authors or dividing a Word document into sections or chapters for members of a team to work on. High end document creators use XML authoring software such as Altova XMLSpy, Arbortext Editor, BroadVision QuickSilver, JustSystems XMetaL, PTC Arbortext and, Stylus Studio. But a large swath of non-professional authors need easier, less-expensive tools. One example is Vasont which manages content components as collections, particularly for translation projects. This problem requires fundamentally different tooling than the set provided by Office 2010 or Google/DocVerse. It's less whiz-bang than seeing a demo with multiple people typing away with different colored cursors and arrows to their locations in a document, but I think attention on componentized authoring would yield higher productivity for organizations than simultaneous authoring.
As far as I'm concerned, this purchase is not a big deal yet until it yields some fruit in the unknown future. And I'd rather see an emphasis on helping authors to componentize and reuse content rather than worry about how to handle about them typing over each other's cursors.