The iEtherpad Review

Sometimes I read something that I wrote weeks ago, or even months or years ago, and I try to remember the writing process — how did I get from the original thought to the finished article? What kind of editing went on while I was writing the article — was it a smooth one take article or did I rewrite and rewrite passage after passage?

Memory fades, but iEtherpad does not.

Etherpad was a service that was offered by a company that was very quickly gobbled up by Google to bolster their then new Wave service. History tells us that service did not fare so well. The part of the service in which they were interested was the collaboration aspect.

Google did the right thing and, since they were no longer going to use the code, released it into the wild where it has been snapped up and used by a number of groups, including the one I particularly like — still called etherpad, but with a slightly different URL. Why is there this new URL? It is much of the same code, fundamentally, but it is not run by the same organization — and it therefore needs to have a different name. I have found this site to be superior to the other ones listed on the old Etherpad site.

After you create a new document, every change that you make is instantly saved and tracked as a revision. Deleting one character, typing one character, hitting the space bar — all saved as revisions. An article such as this one could have hundreds if not thousands of revisions depending on how long it is. You can then rewind and view the document creation process. Click here, for example, to see revision of one public pad I created — and then hit the play button to watch me, in a way, create that document.

In addition to allowing you to create public pads, you can create private group effort pads that let you log in and collaborate with a group of people of your choosing.

What is the long term value of being able to see the history of something you write? I can certainly see how it would be a fun exercise sometimes, but I don’t see any real value in terms of application by writers. I can imagine that it may be useful to use for school children so that a teacher may watch the process of how an essay came to be written — maybe even one way to detect cheating before it happens.

One may wonder why not just use Google Docs since it’s already accessible by everyone with a Google account? Two reasons — the increase in how often the document is saved and the beautiful way you can view revisions. From the official site :

Other “real-time” editors like Google Docs work by broadcasting an updated copy of the document to everyone every 15 seconds. This creates a noticeable lag that gets in the way of collaboration. You start editing something, only to find 10 seconds later that someone else deleted it.

Etherpad updates every copy of the document every half second. This 30x increase in speed changes the experience completely. Your edits hardly ever clash with other users’. So you work confidently instead of tentatively.

Moreover, you can’t compare the way that you can view revisions in Google Documents versus the way you can play through hundreds of revisions in etherpad. It just isn’t the same league.

3 comments

  • Great review, Gordon! I will have to experiment with the product. I wonder why Google didn’t just keep the technology to improve Google Docs? That seems strange to me.

    • David,

      The answer to that is on their web site — the iEtherpad programmers figured out how to get the delay down to such a small time frame.

      Why doesn’t Google Docs update every half second like Etherpad does? Because it’s really, really hard. We’re fairly experienced programmers, and to make this work we had to solve problems that, as far as we know, no one had solved before.

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