Tom Worthington has posted a review of ICE, worth a read because it looks at the software from a new point of view. Tom raised some fundamental questions about the application that I thought I'd deal with in this post.
While I'd say that the review is fairly positive, Tom notes that ICE is not trivial to install and at the moment is best suited to use in a corporate IT environment. I have highlighted the bit where he points out the problem.
In addition you need the Subversion version control system, which is also available free (but will not run on Microsoft Windows). This brings up the major problem with the ICE system: it is corporate software designed for an organisation with IT support staff to look after it. It is not intended for one lone author with a computer and a good idea. Installing the software is very complex and should be left to an expert, unless you have a lot of patience.
Assuming your IT expert managed to install the software (or you can follow the technical guide), there is a user guide to help you use the software. The author creates word processing documents using supplied templates. The templates help the ICE software then convert the documents to web pages, slides and PDF documents.
We've been carrying on an email conversation with Tom for a week or so now, and his insights into where ICE fits are very valuable. We're agreed that we need an easy to use installation-free way for people to use ICE so that they can grasp what it does and hassle their IT people to install it for them. That's on the list of stuff to do for the project: first step will be an online version of ICE that lets you download word processing docs, edit them and re-upload. No installation required, except maybe a template.
But one of the questions that's come out of our conversation is along the lines of “why bother with word processor input at all – why not make this an entirely online service” (This is not a quote from Tom Worthington, it's me paraphrasing).
This kind of question or suggestion is a good opportunity for us to revisit things that are really obvious to the ICE cognoscenti but not at all obvious to the rest of the world.
Back to basics
Using a word processor was a basic requirement for ICE. We knew that no matter what tool we mandated most people writing long documents for courseware or research would use Microsoft Word and try to paste the result into the editing application. We also offer OpenOffice.org / NeoOffice as an option.
Word processors give you lots and lots of features. Some are gimmicks but many are there because they make life much easier. Here's a sample of some important features:
Outlining and rapid document navigation : Word's outliner is great. Writer's is sort of OK, both have navigation tools that let you jump around looking for images, tables, bookmarks and so on.
Built in drawing editors : They work well enough in both Word and Writer but interchange is a real problem.
Control over layout via WYSIWYG : Meaning we can create print output that's under author control, and still use styles to show enough document structure to create HTML versions as well.
Maths tools : You need to be able to do maths.
Bibliographic tools : Ok, these don't really come with the word processor unless you count Word 2007 which has only just appeared and will take at least 5 years to become the most common word processor, if indeed it ever does, and the seriously bad bibliographic support in Writer. But Word has had a range of tools available for years; USQ has a site license for EndNote which is not perfect but works. : [We've recently made some great progress with a new tool called Zotero – with a new plugin for both Word and Writer, more soon on that]
You don't all of that in any online editor I've ever seen, and writing one is too big a task for a small team in a university to take on. That's not to say that one day there won't be an online or online/offline word processing app that meets the needs of academics, with all the above features or their equivalents, but I don't see us creating it in the short term.
Next post I'll look at how I see a possible transition from the ICE approach of word processors for all text input to online editing, starting with small simple cases and adding complexity as we go.