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It’s the rare individual who produces something—from an automobile to a handcrafted table to an annual report—without the involvement of other people. So why is it so hard to collaborate digitally? Up until now, only Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature allowed multiple people to work on a single document, and even then they could do so only through sequential passes and with frequent frustrations.

But now there’s a tool that gets closer to the goal of collaborative writing—SubEthaEdit, from The Coding Monkeys ($35). SubEthaEdit is more like a simultaneous conversation than a sequential one—more like chat than e-mail. Instead of requiring that users hand documents back and forth, SubEthaEdit allows these editing passes to happen all at once. In the process, you can make the document better by conversing about what’s happening as it happens (See screenshot).

I was introduced to the power of SubEthaEdit when I shared a single document of notes during a Macworld Expo keynote. As Steve Jobs talked, 10 to 15 people wrote, fixed typos and errors, made comments, or just followed along. We couldn’t communicate except in the document or via iChat, but by the end, the final set of notes was complete, readable, and laced with interesting commentary.

To explore the best ways to work with SubEthaEdit, I used it to write this article. I collaborated with Jeff Carlson, a frequent Macworld contributor who works down the hall from me in an office in Seattle, and Adam C. Engst, a Macworld contributing editor who lives 2,500 miles away in Ithaca, New York. We’ve done many projects together, but we had a lot to learn about using SubEthaEdit to get this job done.

Diving In

SubEthaEdit works best for projects that would normally require lots of conversations or e-mail messages to nail down details. It’s also helpful for documents that require many editing passes. Think shared notes, brainstorm sessions, and company white papers, not a detailed research project filled with painstaking analysis and few words.

You can download and use SubEthaEdit noncommercially for free. When you launch the program, you’ll see what looks like a simple text editor that lacks any formatting options except positioning with tabs and spaces. To get started, one person creates a new document, saves it on a local hard drive, and clicks on the Announce button in the button bar.

Get Connected How do other writers and editors join in? The easiest way is through Rendezvous connections over a local network. In a memorable presentation, Rendezvous inventor and evangelist Stuart Cheshire used a SubEthaEdit document for his simple slide show and accidentally left the document shared. When an audience member corrected an error on screen, Cheshire looked up to see that his technology had the unintended consequence of allowing spontaneous copyediting.

You can also access a document over the Internet, but the Mac that hosts it must have a publicly accessible Internet address. That requires either a static address that doesn’t change over time, or a dynamic address that the outside world can reach.

A shared Internet connection—for example, a Wi-Fi gateway connected to a DSL modem—introduces another level of difficulty. You’ll have to use port forwarding. Consult the SubEthaEdit manual and FAQ page.

Join the Team Connect to a document by pasting a URL sent by the host (File: Copy Document URL) into the top field in the Internet window. (If that window isn’t visible, go to Window: Internet.) You can also browse for documents by accessing the Window: Rendezvous window and double-clicking on a document.

You can join a document that’s set to Read, Read/Write, or Locked. If the document is locked, the person who has the file must admit each editor manually as he or she tries to connect. You don’t need user names or passwords, but we found that leaving a document locked can prove troublesome. If remote users disconnect, they can’t get back in again until you approve them.

SubEthaEdit assigns participants specific colors, which highlight their edits. Because the basic document is text with no metadata or hidden formatting tags (a trick that Microsoft Word, RTF, and HTML documents use to preserve presentation), these colors persist only while the document is open. If you want to keep track of who suggested what, you can export a picture of the document as a Web page (File: Export) complete with color coding.

Tips from the Front Lines

As I mentioned earlier, Jeff, Adam, and I wrote this article using SubEthaEdit. Since I’m the only one of us who has a static IP address, I started the draft, clicked on Announce, and then alerted Jeff and Adam via iChat. (It’s helpful to use voice chat or the telephone as an adjunct to SubEthaEdit—that way, you don’t have to manage typing in two applications.)

I wrote large parts of this article in draft form and then outlined the rest. The other two jumped in, and we spent time brainstorming, editing, and writing together. This caused some confusion until we broke the job down into separate tasks. After completing a working draft, I finalized it and sent it around using Word’s Track Changes features to produce the draft we submitted to Macworld.

Set Ground Rules When people communicate face-to-face, they know not to interrupt, to give everyone a chance to talk, and so on. But in the virtual world of a SubEthaEdit document, you need new rules.

For one thing, it’s easy to get disoriented while working with SubEthaEdit because words can appear and disappear in front of your eyes—even words you were working on. We agreed to not edit a section that someone else was actively editing, and to put a note at the bottom of the section when we were done editing.

Also, although SubEthaEdit color-codes text as you work on it with a different color corresponding to each editor, we needed the ability to annotate those edits to explain why we’d made them. We put notes below paragraphs we had changed—for example: ** This part needs a little more detail. -gf

It’s also important to agree that someone is in charge. In our experience, people implicitly let the person who started the document lead. But there may be situations where it’s good to specify explicitly who controls the document. The leader is also the person who’s most likely to keep others from chatting too much within the document.

Beware the Eager Deleter The greatest danger in SubEthaEdit is the overeager or accidental deleter: you can reverse deletions, but it’s tricky if no one notices the change. And a malicious deleter could ruin a collaborative document. Because SubEthaEdit doesn’t have an autosave feature, someone must save the document from time to time. Luckily, everyone—not just the person who created the original—can save a local copy.

If you lose important information, all is not lost. Even though the file reverts to plain text when you save and close it, Word’s Compare Documents feature or BBEdit’s Find Differences feature can show you the differences.

The Future Is Collaborative

Working as a team in this way takes some effort, but the bottom line is that it saves time. We’ve used SubEthaEdit to shave hours off projects—from building outlines and conducting group meetings to revising articles. We think it’s only the first of many programs that will promote collaborative processes.

[Glenn Fleishman is the author of Take Control of Your AirPort Network (Peachpit Press, 2004). Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of TidBits and the author of Making a Movie in iMovie and iDVD; Visual QuickProject Guide (Peachpit Press, 2004). Adam C. Engst is a Macworld contributing editor and the publisher of TidBits.]

With SubEthaEdit, a group of editors can work on the same document at the same time. Participants’ color-coded edits and comments wink in and out as they’re made. The Internet window shows active participants and their status, as well as the current shared document.
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