For about five years now I've been wanting to create a collaborative web-based writing tool. My background is in software development on small and medium-sized teams. As you know this involves a great deal of planning, with frequent changes to the team's goal, priorities, and decisions. Good communication is essential in such environments.xxxI've longed for an online tool that can help people communicate more effectively. Creating a collaborative outliner is the first step in this pursuit.
Old ideasAs you know, outlining is a tired old concept in the software business. Its biggest successes are in word processors and personal information managers. (Contrasted with groups managing information.)
And, the idea of collaborative writing tools is trying to take off in various forms. Take note of Xanadu, various technologies for message boards, wikis, weblogging, user tracking functionality in word processors, etc.
New mediumThe two ideas of collaborative outlining and outlining on the web have been discussed ad nauseum. Just a miniscule sampling:
The question is not whether to pursue such a product, but rather what to do with itNow, my issue does not revolve around academic debates as to whether online outlining is useful enough to pursue, or to how to accomplish it. But rather, what to do with such technology.
You see, I've already developed a useable system.
4TimelineHow I got to the current product.
•Software evaulationResearched whether I could improve project communication by using existing tools. Came up dissatisfied.
•Schema designStarting drafting database schemas for online discussion systems.
•1998-2000Discussed the topic with friends and collegues, trying to see whether my ideas had any merit.
•Finally got decent buy-in from someone who likes to organize information and runs complex projects where efficient communication is essential. Was encouraged enough to begin work on a prototype. http://lyon.gayin.net/
•March 2001Made significant headway in my R&D effort.
4August 2001Completed a functional web-based prototype.
•Lists of lists
•Edit one list at a time
•Drag and drop
•Anyone can access it on the web
•Just one big, shared outline--no content permissions
•IIS on Windows NT 4.0
•IE 5.5 for Windows
•MDAC client-side database libraries
•October 2001-presentStarted doing more product research, looking at what features are available in existing products, and what niches are not yet filled.
•March 2002Started a complete product rewrite in ASP.NET.
•November 2002Deployed an Alpha version of the product; still rounding out functionality today.
•October 2010Working on updated version of the outliner for HTML 5. Nearly universal support for editing outlines in the browser, with the widespread adoption of CONTENTEDITABLE.
4Feature setNotable features in the current product.
6Browser-based outlinerMy original prototype allowed users to edit lists of lists, one list at a time. This version is a respectable outliner.
•Heavy focus on ease-of-use
•Edit using IE 5.5 and above
•Read using recent-version browsersMust support current standards for W3C DOM and CSS.
•Performs well over DSL connections
•Quite usable over a dialup
6Basic user account registration and maintenanceA minimal set of user account features have been created, refined, and tested. Some of these features are currently hidden, but they'll be back live next week.
•Identity confirmation through e-mail
•Register with multiple e-mail addresses
•Content permissionsUsers may control how their information is shared with others. Still working on user permission UI, but the backend is working.
•Unicode, through and throughMake no mistake. This outliner handles Kanji and Cyrillic just as well as Latin characters.
•ASP.NET on the backend
•Database is either Access or SQL ServerAccess might be useful for client-side installations. The system performs well on Access, so long as the database stays around ~10's of MB rather than 100 or more.
•To read outlines, use Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or OperaWebkit now properly handles Webdings This bug was a sore point for me for years--my expand and contract arrows are Webdings rather than images to allow entire webpages to be saved off for offline access. Now Webkit is fixed. Nice!
•To edit outlines, use Internet Explorer for WindowsCross-browser editing is within reach. Just a few DOM bugs to fix, I;m hoping.
4Productivity increase is noticeableI've been using the product between myself and one other person, with a noticeable increase in productivity. We like it a lot.
•Personal task lists
6Lists of online resources
•Articles of interest
•Reference web sites
•Usability and UI issues on home page
Plenty of work remaining to get from Alpha to BetaLot of stuff to work on yet: We're still working out bugs, usability still needs refinement, key features are missing, and we have a list of features we'd like to have.
•Introduction for new users
•List management features
•Robust error handling
4Long-term feature goals
•Transclusion of other outlines and RSS contentAlready in the database schema.
•ArchivingAlready in the database schema.
•More content formatting and rendering options
•Better support for mobile browsers
•Native app for iOS
Seeking answers to the question of what to do with this softwareWe have too many ideas. Time to choose which ones to pursue. What's realistically achievable?
•Create a product
•Offer a service
•Consult for companies that need such technology in their products
•Give it away to developers to integrate into their products
•Keep it a hobby, and move on
Looking for honest, real-life perspectives from othersSo, what recommendations do you have? What have you gained in your experience that applies to our situation?