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Strategic insights
Online Document Collaboration - For smart people

Written by on October 7, 2005

This week 37Signals released their latest product - Writeboard. It is a tool for writing - or rather to write and edit text collaborative.

The idea of taking an already known function, strip it for about 95% of the writing/reviewing functionality and add "web" to it, is not my definition of a good product. The same pretty much goes for all the other online document collaboration tools out there.

The main problem is that the vital part, the word processor, is missing. What good is a tool for writing, if it does not include a proper word processor?

It seems to me that 37Signals has taken the toughest approach possible. It can be done much smarter, without the need for new work methods or programs...

How "real" writers do it

When writers are writing collaborative, many use Microsoft Word. This is a good environment for writing. You got spelling and grammar, auto correction, page layout control, easy printing, extensive file saving and export, formatting, tables, columns, headers, footers, indexes, tables of contents, text styles etc.

When you collaborate with other people you can track changes, do version control, add comments, and control what to do with each change. You can highlight parts of the text, add footnotes - you can even use "ink", that is you can draw on-screen to illustrate your point.

You pretty much got everything you need in order to write and collaborate effectively. So, why do people not use word?

The answer is: lack of online connectivity. People (mistakenly) think that collaborating in Word, means emailing documents around.

Turn Word into a true online collaboration tool

Microsoft has developed SharePoint to make it easier to collaborate - but we are not using that. Why? Because, it is too expensive and too server-depend for most people. There got to be an easier way - and there is.

Map an FTP folder as a network drive

The simplest way to turn Microsoft Word into an online document collaboration tool is to map an FTP folder as a network drive. Products like "WebDrive 6.x" allow you to do this with ease (and more if you need so).

Setup steps:

  1. Get WebDrive 6.x
  2. Install it
  3. Map a FTP folder as a drive letter - e.g. Drive F:
  4. Save your Word documents on F:

(Repeat these steps on the computers that needs to able to collaborate)

Now you can keep you existing workflow, get all the bells and whistles of Microsoft Word Document writing and reviewing - with true online collaboration. It is the best of all.

But, this also works with any other application, any file. Are you a graphics designer using Adobe CS 2? Save your comp files on the FTP drive, and use Adobe Version Cue to collaborate globally - just as you would locally.

It will be exactly the same as if all team members are sitting in the same room, using the same server.

Collaboration is not about fancy web applications, upload forms, and 3rd party websites. It is about connection data and information within your existing workflow. Anything else is just a waste of people's time.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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