We are used to writing documents in a serial manner. That is, one person starts the document and then sends it to one or more people for review. Or, different sections of a document are assigned to two or more authors and then one of them ends up combining them into a single file. Either way, the process is linear and introduces time delays (not only wait time but also time required by each author to get re-acquainted with the document each time they see it.)
The key difference in a collaborative authoring environment, is the ability to work on the same document simultaneously. As you will see in this posting, it is even possible to work on the document simultaneously and "merge" the contributions of all authors at any time.
As this help screen from Writely shows, you can invite any number of people to collaborate on a given document. Invitations need to be sent for every document. There does not appear to be a way, as of now, to set up collaboration lists based on document types or any other criteria. (Note: Click on any of the screen shots to see a larger version of it.)
As you are editing a document, your window will show whether any other authors are working on the document at the same time. This can be important, since you may want to discuss with that person what each of you should be doing. Otherwise, and as a default, Writely will automatically synchronize all of the contributions and do so every few seconds.
This will pull up the "Select Collaborators" dialog. You can enter the email addresses of as many people as you like. Any collaborators that you have invited before, can be selected using the "Shortcuts" pull-down.
To do this, I have selected an abstract from the Eli Lilly trial registry database available on their web site. The abstract appears there as a PDF file. The screen shot here represents the first page of the abstract.
By using the PDF file format, Lilly is doing us a favor since it allows us to see how well Writely deals with text and formatting conventions.
Assume, then, that the first author copies and pastes parts of this abstract into the Writely word processor. He does so one section at a time.
Here is the same paragraph after the copy and paste function. Note that the underline was retained. Also, the box around the text was inserted. Unfortunately, once the software bumped into the confidence level sign, the text style and size were changed and remained the same for the rest of the paragraph. So, it is clear that Writely does not yet have much sophistication on the formatting front. This is a problem, especially when it comes to scientific notation.
During this testing, I discovered a function called "Remove Formatting..." under the Style menu. By highlighting the whole paragraph and then selecting this function, the entire paragraph was "un"-formatted. In other words, the text was changed to the default style and size. This is a nice feature but also means that you need to then re-format the text to the way you really want it to appear.
Later, author number two sees the comment and responds. Note that everyone can see all the comments. Also note that Writely date and time stamps each comment. This serves as the audit trail and will also allow the comparison of different versions of the document as it changes over time.
Adding and/or Editing Text
Other adds and edits are made pretty much the same way. Assuming that multiple authors are working at the same time, the text that each one sees will be changed every few seconds based on the changes made by others. This, of course, represents a radical shift from the way we currently edit documents and will take time to get used to. The important thing is that much greater flexibility is gained within the entire authoring process and, if used correctly, many of the time delays can be reduced or eliminated.
The concept of versions is somewhat different in Writely than in document management systems like Documentum or LiveLink. Specifically, versioning in Writely is time based. This means that you can compare two versions of the same document with the selection of the time interval being completely under your control.
For example, in this screen shot, the first author has opted to compare a version written 11 minutes ago by the author "GLaszlo" to the one edited 41 minutes ago by the first author "Me." Me, of course, is the person currently logged in.
This time based approach to versioning is useful but needs to be extended to allow the assignment of real version numbers and labels. This would better indicate to users which versions to compare. For now, I can think of only one way to get past this limitation. That is, to use the Tag function already discussed in a prior post.