EtherPad

Over at ReadWriteWeb today, I
caught

this entry
about EtherPad, a
collaborative text-authoring web app. One conspicuous difference between
EtherPad and the other word processing web apps (Google
Docs
, Adobe Buzzword,
Zoho Writer, etc.) is that the changes to
the text are nearer to synchronous. Contributors see each other’s writing
almost immediately. Even better: EtherPad does not require an account; no
sign-up is necessary. The site provides
this demo.

It’s easy to imagine using EtherPad for drafting a conference
proposal or something, although Google Docs has proven adequate for that sort of
thing. Where I see EtherPad’s greatest immediate use (in my world, anyway)
is in the online consultation appointments we’ve been offering lately in the
Writing Center. Right now I use any number of chat clients (AIM, iChat,
and Google Talk), but EtherPad features a chat module. I log on to the
chat client, invite the student to a session, and we begin chatting about the
work at hand. Usually it takes five minutes to gain access to a draft.
Because the built-in file transfer processes get hung up far too often
(resulting in further delays), I also have the students email their drafts to
drop.io, where I can easily access the file. Even with all of this,
commenting the text in real time can be a pain. Absent voice options and
desktop sharing I still find it fairly difficult to identify the places in the
text where I am focusing. Why not copy/paste the document (or a portion of
it) into EtherPad and use the built-in chat module to discuss the passage?

EtherPad does not provide voice or video options, but it would serve as a
terrific complement to Adobe Connect Now, which does offer voice, video, chat,
and desktop sharing. For the WC technology audit I’m working on this semester,
I’ve been thinking a lot about recommending two-app mash-ups as a kind of
low-cost writing consultation-ware. EtherPad’s usability threshold is so
low (i.e., it’s free to use, requires no sign up, and presents its options in a
simple layout), it seems to me a strong choice for use alongside one of the
other audio-video-chat applications. I would think Writing Centers would
be all over this sort of web app for synchronous online consulting.

On the short list of drawbacks, there is the small matter of its ethereal
quality. You can save the text, but you need to keep track of the URL
because there is no other way to track down the saved file. As I was
checking out the save function, I found that the chat transcript is not logged.
When a saved version of the text is loaded, the chat transcript starts from
scratch. It would be nice, however, if there were options for saving (and,
thus, resuming) the chat transcript or for outputting the text file and the chat
transcript (for my purposes, I’d even like to see a one-click option for saving
these to a single file). Might also be nice to see a "scrub" option so that the
document and chat transcript are cleared from the server following a session. But these are relatively minor concerns for what
appears otherwise to be a promising new application.