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The growing appeal of online collaboration. On Google Wave and EtherPad

If you look around on the web these days, it really seems that online collaboration is taking off. It started small with the likes of e.g. Google Docs which only has limited and not real-time collaboration facilities. But only recently we see activities in this area to rise.

The biggest impact of course had Google Wave thanks to the buzz Google created around it. And indeed the technology behind it is impressive as it allows collaboration on a keystroke by keystroke basis even across several servers. Google Wave still has a long way to go though before becoming a really useful tool. It needs a better (or one at all) client-server protocol unifying robots and web clients, it needs an open source web client or preferably many of them and of course it also needs more experiments with usability including definitions of workflows and ACLs.

But Google Wave is not the only thing happening these days. There also is Mozilla Bespin, an online text editor for programmers, which also sports collaboration features although they also need some work. And there is EtherPad which allows for online collaboration with a simple RichText editor and is really easy to use.

So maybe it is no wonder that Google acquired AppJet, the company behind EtherPad, in order to integrate it with Google Wave, one hears. This raised the question though what it actually is they want to integrate because their own Wave client already has all the features of EtherPad, if not more (like gadgets, file uploads etc.).

Moreover users of EtherPad haven’t been impressed by the decision of Google to basically shutdown EtherPad or at least the public creation of new pads (as documents are called there). Luckily Google and AppJet listened to them and reopened the creation of public pads.

Open Source FTW

But the big news in that news transition plan is not the reopening but instead the announcement that EtherPad and the server infrastructure behind it will be open sourced. This is really great news as I see more and more people’s need to be able to collaborate online in an easy way. Here EtherPad really shines of course mainly because it’s simplicity and because there is no need to register to use it (unlike Google Wave).

What’s missing?

The good news about Google Wave is that it also is open source, at least partly. There is the Google Wave Federation Prototype Server which you can install yourself on your server but this only federates with the Google Wave Sandbox which is a different server than the Google Wave Preview. Moreover it does not allow you to use accounts you might create on your own Federation Prototype Server.
This basically means that for using the Google Wave Web client you always need to have a Google account which is not what the promise of Google Wave has been (which was that you can run your own Wave infrastructure behind your firewall). What’s missing is really a viable open source alternative to the Google Wave client.

Now EtherPad is doing something very similar although it is limited to be run on a single server. This is sufficient though for most cases esp. if it’s really just about text editing. Nevertheless it would be great if the future of EtherPad would be to be an open source client for Google Wave and then capable of connecting to a wave server hosted by yourself. Unfortunately that blog post was quiet about whether this is the plan or not. And if not is also needs to be seen if the code base actually allows for easy integration.

We also shouldn’t forget that there is another Google Wave client called pygowave which is an attempt to start not with federation (meaning the synchronisation between servers as the Prototype server does) but with the online collaboration aspect. Unfortunately it’s broken for me right now but eventually this might morph itself into a Google Wave client which can connect to a server hosted by yourself. As it does not have the manpower of Google behind it if still lacks many features of the official Google Wave client but to be honest I think some more experimenation on how Wave could be used and presented is also needed.

But while there are only bits and pieces around right now the outlook is promising because:

  • with the Federation Prototype server there is a good basis for an easy to use server
  • with EtherPad there is the possibility of an easy to use and open source Wave client or at least a different system for online collaboration
  • with pygowave there is the possibility of an open source Wave client and server.

And most importantly of course if that many of these developments are happening in the open source space which avoids the demise of some great products to end up in some drawer to never see the light of the day again.

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