| September 24, 2010 6:38 pm

Note: The normal programming of the website has been interrupted by a need to get the Open Source Writing book done.  I fully intend to pick things up very soon, but I first must send a finished draft to my editor/publisher.  They’ve been very patient and I’ve been … somewhat … irresponsible.

With that said, in addition to the topic on the Scribus mailing list, there’s also an interesting discussion happening on the LyX mailing list.  This one is about real time collaboration and whether it makes sense to include those features in a word processing package.

Though the debate is specific to LyX, it raises larger questions that are also relevant to the Open Source Writing book.  Such as:

  • Is version control software (VCS) a good way to exchange information with co-authors?
  • What is the best way to request feedback and merge changes?
  • How might the equivalent of a “track changes” feature be implemented for users of different platforms and programs?
  • Should collaboration software be part of the desktop?  If not, how might it be implemented?

Since this is the topic of another book chapter, again, I would appreciate feedback and thoughts.  As with the other posting, the entire history can be found via the LyX mailing list archives.


Hi Jose and other LyX-Users,

Very interesting articles, thanks for sending them. [In reference to an earlier posting.  The links pointed at collaboration features for AbiWord and Google Docs.]  While trying to digest the ideas, though, I found myself asking two questions and I’d be interested in your feedback.

The first question, of course is spurred by pure skepticism.

When is real time collaboration useful?

In what instances do you think this feature would be useful?

For my part, I’m not a collaborative writer.  I don’t think well in the presence of others and I hate writing with an audience.  My one and only experience with Google Wave was a nightmare.  People could see just how much backspacing was involved in my replies!  It was deeply humiliating and I’m quite glad that Wave died.

(Unfortunately, this whole real time collaboration thing is the next major front in online communication, and I’m sure others will take up the mantle.  Pity.)

But I’m probably not representative of the general population.  Even VCS collaboration often feels too “real time” for me (though I use it and heartily recommend it to others).  I much prefer distinct drafts (PDF) sent via email.  Even better is paper sent via post.   This allows for me to organize my commentary and deliver an overall impression and specific recommendations

(To be clear, I prefer this arrangement when editing and when receiving feedback.)

The Pain of Expected Features

However, with all that said, real time collaboration is becoming an expected feature.

AbiWord and Google Docs have it, OpenOffice is talking about it, and MS Word even has a rudimentary option.  I have several colleagues that have moved to Google Docs specifically because of the real time collaboration options.  (Even though they’ve never actually used them, at least to the best of my knowledge, and the editing experience is hideous in every other respect.)

Such people take take solace in knowing that the features are present and “would never move to a platform that didn’t have them.”  I’ve even heard this from the small cadre of users I’ve converted to LyX.  To put it another way, real time document collaboration is a marketing feature that became an expected option.

Unfortunately, marketing features matter.  They differentiate Program A from Program B and provide a talking point.  Then, because they’re talked about, they become part of the criteria by which a program is judged.

If you need an example, look at what Google Docs has done with the benighted real time collaboration of Google Docs.  The presence/lack of a collaboration feature has become a standard part of any  word processor review.  Journalists talk about it as though it were important.  Microsoft Word 2007 was knocked on ZdNet, for example, because it wasn’t present.  MS Word 2010 was lauded because it was (even though it sucks).

Yet, I’ve never actually met anyone who writes with others in real time.

(The only counterexample I can think of was an exchange with Michael Foord, who uses it to start program documentation.  But when I pressed him, what Michael described was more of an outlining tool and could easily be created via an interactive whiteboard rather than a full-featured real-time editing environment.)

What should collaboration and document exchange look like?

Which leads to my second question.  What should real time collaboration look like in order to be helpful?  Should it be built into an IM client (ala screensharing) with voice and video?

Or would it be better as an online service?

Is integration into a desktop writing program necessary? Or would an implementation similar to the MS Word 2010 version be more appropriate, which is a hybrid approach?

You [in reference to the individual who started the thread] have advocated for this strongly and I would love to hear your opinions on the above questions.  What would be most helpful for your work?

Based on other implementations, what doesn’t work quite so well?

As more tools release similar real time solutions, I think calls for something similar in LyX will increase.  Not necessarily because it’s useful, but because it’s expected.  And yes, I know that this is a terrible reason to add new features.  Which is actually my general point.

Current implementations of real-time editing are generally awful.  A desktop level approach would be infinitely superior to the approach we are seeing now where each word processor does its own thing.

So, if the feature doesn’t fit within LyX, perhaps we could send the use case scenarios and discussion to another project where it did fit?  The natural fit, at least to my mind, would be one of the IM clients.  Perhaps Empathy?

Anyone else have any thoughts?


Rob Oakes


2 Responses to “Real Time Collaboration: Is It Useful?”

Zen Faulkes wrote a comment on September 24, 2010

I’ve been collaborating with people on several manuscripts, and I have never wished for real-time, simultaneous editing. The few times I’ve needed to check with a collaborator, it’s been most effective to get both of us in the room and discuss a few changes, then have one of us type them in.

Stephen wrote a comment on September 27, 2010

Personally, I remain unconvinced. Perhaps some platform level collaboration tools might work for me for final drafts where we could all see what was going on, but earlier in the process I prefer to have todo style notes stuck all over the document highlighting passages and suggesting additions or rephrasing etc. Then I get to choose what and how to implement.

I have edited standards during the comments resolution process with two beamers running and one person editing the document, and the other editing the comments document (accept/reject and reasoning). This is the nearest I have ever got or would want to get to live editing, unless someone could really sell it to me.

I can see wanting to collaborate on reference databases because this is shared knowledge material, but documents really need an owner (at least for chapters or sections) who controls what is happening.

I am not experienced with version control systems but keep meaning to teach myself. They are not implemented on the corporate system where I do most of my work (unless you count sharepoint) so it would end up being a personal thing. I could see that keeping chapters or sections in version control for people to work on separately might work. Maybe have a separate element for comments on a chapter which could be worked on even if the chapter is checked out.

I don’t like the track changes elements in word because I often struggle to make out what the change is (changes often start part way through words etc) and by the time two people have edited it looks like a dog’s breakfast. But then I think word and others should concentrate on getting the basics better (or even right!). For me having a decent way of creating a template, with stable numbering, that does not keep referring back to the normal template and whatever junk you have there. Enough rant – that is why I choose to use LyX when I can.

Care to comment?