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3 Ways to Edit Documents Collaboratively

Working on the Web means that it’s easy to reach out to collaborators – but what then? If you actually need to work on the web with other people (as opposed to just communicating with clients and suppliers via the web), you’ll need some tool support. Take the common problem of needing to jointly edit a document, for example. In the old days (say, five years ago) most of us would do this by emailing drafts back and forth, perhaps using something like Microsoft Word’s revision marks feature to indicate who did what.

But these days, you’re not limited to such primitive serial workflows. Thanks to the web, there are a batch of ways that you can edit a document together with another person – or more than one person – to quickly home in on a final draft. There are three main groups of solution to this problem, each with their own features and drawbacks.

Section 508.doc - Google Docs - Mozilla Firefox (Build 2008070206)1. Use a Collaborative Web Editor – Web services like Google Documents and Zoho Writer have document sharing built right in. On the plus side, this means a very low barrier to entry: anyone can get an account on these services easily. There’s no requirement for users to have a common operating system, either, which is useful if your collaboration needs span multiple platforms. The downside? Although you get a visual indication that another user is editing, you won’t actually see their changes until they save the document. In the worst case, this can mean simply losing your changes in a “last save wins” situation of multiple edits. Google Documents does maintain a revision history, so you can always go back and see who typed what.

Revision history of Telecommuting - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - Mozilla Firefox (Build 2008070206)2. Use a Wiki – There are any number of places you can quickly spin up a free wiki, including PBWiki, Nuospace, and Wikidot. Advantages: easy to set up, easy to invite more people to, and you generally get the ability to track revisions and see who contributed what to the document. Disadvantages: depending on the backend you choose, you may have problems with controlling access to your document, and the editing experience may be tough for non-technical users. Also, it can be hard to convert a wiki page into something that looks good in print or elsewhere. Plus you’ll still have the problem of battling edits if two people are trying to work on the document at the same time.

books_controller.rb3. Use a Collaborative Editor. For the best possible collaborative editing, I’ve found it necessary to turn away from the web and to client-side software. Packages that implement collaborative editing include SubEthaEdit and Coda on OS X, Gobby and ACE for cross-platform use, and the Microsoft Word add-in CoWord (Windows only). These packages aim to enable a completely common editing session, where you can see what multiple people are doing at the same time. Especially if you’re trying to collaborate on a complex document (or source code), this is head and shoulders above the “wait for a save” workflow of web editors and wikis. But on the downside, you end up tied to client-side software and particular platforms, and these packages are complex enough that they don’t always work perfectly.

If you work on documents collaboratively with other people, what’s your solution? What features do you wish you had?

11 Responses to “3 Ways to Edit Documents Collaboratively”

  1. soloportfolio

    Huddle is a great hosted file sharing and collaboration service originating in UK. I’m just beginning to use it myself and while it takes some getting used to (ie… find myself having to leave a better “trail” for my fellow collaborators), it offers better functionality than Google Docs.

  2. Although they’re usually used for coding, and are thus “more hardcore” than your typical methods listed above, Git and SubVersion can be quite useful for collaboration. Both will keep versions of all files and are good for being able to rollback and compare versions.

    Git especially can be used for editing plain text files in a distributed fashion with multiple people working on the same file at once, and merging / seeing changes down to individual characters etc.

    Subversion is not so good for having multiple people working on a file at the same time, but is good if people can take turns, and if that’s the case then it’s quite good for non-plain text files (docs & images included). Subversion can also be integrated into Windows Explorer, or the Mac Finder to perform operations like update / commit / compare with revision x etc.