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Unfinished: Online authoring using ICE Styles


I have had a bad habit on this site of not posting things until they are at least partly finished. This means lots of interesting bits and pieces of experimental code have been sitting on my hard disk; some will eventually appear in ICE or via RUBRIC, but not all. So, I've resolved to start writing up these explorations, partly as documentation for myself and partly for your entertainment. I'll tag these posts with unfinished.

First up, I have been thinking about online authoring tools. We'll need an online version of ICE for the ICE-RS project as many research students don't have just one computer they use. Initially the online ICE will be based on downloading documents, editing in a word processor and re-uploading, or maybe via WebDAV. But in the longer term, it would be good to edit documents straight from the browser.

I have written a couple of rants about what an awful job Google Docs does of editing word processing documents, so I did some experimenting to see if I could do better.

My idea was to see if we could build an in-browser editor based on the same kind of structure as a word processor – ie a document that consists of paragraphs with styles on them with no hierarchical list or section structures. Lists in particular seem to cause real problems for these online editors, so why not ignore the listed nested structure of HTML in the editing phase and use the same style names as we use in ICE? This would allow easy interchange with word processors.

So, an ICEHTML document would look like this during the editing phase:

This is a bulleted list

With a numbered list in it.

With a numbered list in it.

This is a bulleted list

And would be stored as proper HTML later; it would be trivial to turn it back into ICEHTML:

I chose to experiment with TinyMCE. There may be other options.

My very simple, unfinished example is here. You can't save stuff back to the server. I have made one change from the ICE styles, in that this version requires a different style for the first item in a list. The editor should be able to work this out for you in a real version of this idea.

The main problem is that browsers don't actually support CSS counters properly, so while the lists number correctly Firefox shows them with bullets. Safari handles CSS worse because it mangles the numbering even though the display is better. I'm assuming there's some kind of acceptable solution; but I didn't find one in a couple of hours of mucking around last week. But you can forget about Safari for this demo anyway – the text is not editable.

To use the demo, click in a paragraph and use the style drop down to change the paragraph style – really a CSS class. You can click the HTML button to see what you're generating. The CSS is here.

Note that if you highlight across two or more paragraphs the editor puts in a span element and adds the class to that, not the behaviour we'd want in a real version.

Things we'd need to do to use something like this in ICE:

  1. Lose all the formatting buttons .

  2. Add promote and demote buttons that look like the current list-buttons, but which apply classes .

  3. Work out CSS hacks that work with (at least) Firefox, preferably other browsers.

  4. Write Javascript to restart lists in the right places.

  5. Customize the new Python-based HTML formatter in ICE so it can understand ICEHTML.

  6. Write an round trip OpenDocument to ICEHTML converter.