Kicking out the JAMMs for 2012


The DECO7350 tutorial on the 13th of August was a group discussion on a single article: Flexible collaboration transparency: supporting worker independence in replicated application-sharing systems. The paper concerned itself with the design and analysis of the collaboration transparency system Flexible JAMM (Java Applets Made Multiuser). I thought it would be good to investigate the software, and put it through its paces. Alas, the last iteration of the software and its website (with its badly anti-aliased pictures) was 1998. This makes it to the web what the pre-Cambrian era is to geology, and I did not feel comfortable working through the build instructions, dealing with primeval versions of the Java API as they did. Since I wanted to get my collaborative awareness on as easily as possible, I reckoned it would be best to look up alternatives to Flexible JAMM.

Google Docs has been a favorite discussion topic for the DECO3500 group blog; I didn't want to redo someone else's analysis. I wanted to look at SubEthaEdit, but it only works on Mac OS X, as the implementers "currently have neither resources nor experience to port our products to other platforms". Google Wave was mentioned in the tutorial; it is now in the process of becoming Apache Wave, but "is so much of a moving target at the moment there are no pre-built packages available". Fortunately, I found Etherpad Lite. It's web-based, which makes it simple enough to actually demonstrate "collaborative awareness". Rather than creating two identities to access it, one can open the same link in two different browsers on the same desktop, and interact at random to simulate two users.

An Etherpad Lite Pad accessed simultaneously from Firefox and Google Chrome.

I reckon Etherpad Lite would be a collaborative aware text editor, rather than collaborative transparent. It's WYSIWYS, and it also allows two different users to put their own insertions in real-time independently of each other. The lag is low, but not always absent. It supports social translucence: each piece of text is assigned a colour depending on the user who wrote it, and the number of connected users is provided on the top-right hand side. I note Etherpad Lite does not support many of the widgets provided by other collaborative aware text editors, such as users possessing separate cursors and scroll bars. I surmise the designers didn't think it worth the hassle. According to Wikipedia, "the original Etherpad [was] written in Scala and has quite big system requirements, [but] Etherpad Lite is written in server-side JavaScript using node.js". It was designed to be as quick as possible, and special widgets added undesirable overhead.

Etherpad Lite supports Unicode (which any decent text editor today should do); the text above shows interlaced insertions from Truyện Kiều, a famous Vietnamese poem. It also supports some formatting instructions: bold, italics, and numbered lists, among others. But if it is a "rich" text editor, rather than a "pure" text editor, it seems to be absent in many of the features one would expects. There's no "subscript" or "superscript" button, least of all an "add anchor" or "remove anchor" button. There are also problems with Etherpad Lite being a collaborative tool. It has "Undo" and "Redo" buttons, but they only handle with the current user's changes rather than other users' changes. This could be confusing in practice. Having an "Undo All" and "Redo All" button would be nice.

I have mixed feelings about Etherpad Lite. It's not really a pure text editor, nor a rich text editor; it's neither fish nor fowl. On the other hand, it's quick, it's browser-independent, and it's not too bad on the eye. Moreover, it's perfect material for "DECO3500/7350 blog posts concerned with collaborative awareness". I can't be too harsh on it. If it's a toy, it's a well designed toy.

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