Google Docs and collaboration

Home-blog-2006-12-06

One of the main design goals for ICE was to let people write courseware (and now research) in an ordinary offline word processor. This makes sense for book-length content, and gives you access to stuff like outliners, mutliple windows onto the same content, bibliography management tools like EndNote.

But there are times when an online editor would be good too. I realised this when I made the switch to using Gmail for all my mail; Gmail's interface and search suits me better than Apple's Mail or Entourage – I get red-squiggly spell checking for nothing courtesy of Firefox 2 and integrated calendaring that mostly understands my exchange calendar too (I just include my Gmail account in meetings), a trick I never managed with iCal. The web experience is better than any other toolset I've tried on the Mac. Maybe Chandler will change the whole game though.

The mail setup I'm using now should be the subject of another post but it made me realize that an online word processor for some tasks might not be as far off for me as I thought, provided it can do the same stuff as, or integrate with, ICE; organizing sets of documents into mini web sites, decent HTML and PDF from the same source, interop with other word processing users on different toolsets.

I was thinking about this issue this week, when by chance, a couple of the Maths & Computing people here at USQ announced a seminar; Using Google Docs to Collaborate on Papers and Study Books.

Researchers and Lecturers have many software options to write papers and course material on their own, but fewer options when they want to collaborate with others.  USQ has developed some systems (eg GOOD and ICE) that can be used by non-technical persons, each having strengths and weaknesses.  In this seminar we present our findings on using Google Docs (formerly Writely.com) and compare it to other approaches.  A live demo of Google Docs is included in the seminar.  In addition, we demo an extension to the system that we developed to generate high-quality output.

http://www.sci.usq.edu.au/research/seminars/?seminarID=132

I've looked at Writely (now Google Docs) before and been disappointed; I hate the interface that is larded with formating tools – and I wish I could use a more structurally oriented editor that just edits plan-old HTML. Headings, blockquotes, lists, that kind of thing. I never, ever want to make arbitrary font changes to parts of my documents – fonts are always, always tied to styles.

Anyway, Stijn and Richard do a wonderful trick with Google Docs -  they collaborate on documents then feed them through a web service that turns them into LaTeX to get a PDF. Stijn demoed a simple form where he fed in a Google Doc and some LaTeX gobbledygook and made one and two column PDF renditions from a single source.

But they identified the same issues as me: the format of a Google Doc with a few bullet points or bits of formatting is too messy to use as the input to a structured converter without significant work, so their processor ends up looking for only the simplest structures, such as paragraphs, and in the end they won't try to deal with the word processor features of Google Docs.

The plan is to use Google Docs as a collaborative text editor and just do LaTeX over the web  - nice and simple if you know LaTeX or work in a community where people will work with you in LaTeX.

I wondered if the same approach might work with wiki text formats which I believe to be less complex than LaTeX, if no more intuitive. Lots of users have become familiar with wiki text recently, including some of our RUBRIC team members, 'cos they have had to learn it to get the considerable benefits of a wiki.

A great Web 2.0 mashup would combine Google Docs for highly concurrent editing by multiple people with a decent HTML output (which you do not get from the current monster). I think over at the ICE team we should pick a wiki format and start building it in to the ICE code base, as this would begin to allow this kind of mashup with ICE docs.

We should explore Google Docs and similar systems on the ICE-RS project; it's important not to too much on ICE just 'cos we wrote it. If other software can do the job with a reasonable business case for using it then we'll use it.

And just as I was about to post this, Jon Udell writes again about the need for a “universal canvas”. The phrase he borrows; We found the version control, collaboration and invite system outweighed the limited feature set could have come from Stijn and Richard's presentation.