Real-time wiki Hackpad makes Web collaboration fast and easy

Hackpad is a very simple-to-use real-time wiki with innovative features and a free plan.

In software, "new" all too often means "complicated." New tools often tempt us with futuristic features and promises of improved productivity, but learning to use them can be a confusing experience, not to mention the time lost while trying to get up to speed. So when I see a tool that is truly new, but also manages to be simpler and more streamlined than the current alternatives, I am truly impressed. Hackpad is one such tool: A new breed of Wiki that shows how much simpler and fluid wikis can be.

Most wikis have two page states: You're either viewing a page (a static piece of HTML), or you are editing it using a textbox in your browser. Hackpad melds both modes into one: To edit the page you're currently viewing, just click anywhere in it. The screen doesn't change, and you're not taken into a bulky editing form. A text insertion cursor just starts blinking, and you can start typing.

Hackpad can do this because it doesn't have to worry about collisions between multiple users editing the same page simultaneously and then saving and overwriting each other's work. In fact, there is no Save button: All edits are done in real-time, and other users viewing the page can see what you're typing as you're typing it. This feature made it easy to use for collaborative note-taking in SXSW.

Another thing that's confusing about regular wikis is figuring out who wrote what. A page usually looks like one cohesive piece of writing, when in fact several authors wrote and amended different parts of it. With Hackpad, when you write a new paragraph, it is marked with an author color and your name is written in the margin next to it. When you edit an existing paragraph your new text is underlined with the same color, and anyone hovering over your text with the mouse can see that you wrote it, even if it's just a single word in the middle of someone else's sentence.

Hackpad is still in its infancy, and it is not perfect. The most important feature missing is revision history: Individual users can undo their immediate edits (Ctrl+Z), but you can't roll a page back in time to a previous state. This is interesting, because Hackpad is partially based on open-source editor Etherpad (acquired by Google in December 2009), a collaborative text editor that has an excellent timeline feature for managing revision history.

Another tradition Hackpad breaks is the wiki syntax for links: Most wikis use double brackets to link to other pages. Hackpad uses the trendy at symbol (@), which does double duty: You can use it both to link to other pages, and to mention (and invite) other users. When you log onto Hackpad using a Google account, it accesses your contacts. Then, when you make an @ symbol and start writing the name of a contact, their full name and email pop up. Just hit Enter, and the contact is invited to edit the document with you (you don't have to use your Google account if you don't want to). Linking to other pages is also incredibly simple: Just write @, start typing their name and Hackpad will offer to autocomplete it. And if you paste in a link to some rich content (say, a YouTube video), Hackpad will immediately embed that video for you into the page. If you're coding, Hackpad offers syntax highlighting for several languages such as HTML, JavaScript, and CoffeeScript.

Hackpad includes easy to use privacy controls: You can set a page to be public, open only to people who have its link (like the mode Google offers for sharing Picasa albums), or open only to people you've explicitly invited.

Hackpad does not yet offer commercial plans, but its free offering is full-featured, and feels amazingly fun and simple to use. If you've ever felt frustrated and limited by your current collaboration tools, take Hackpad for a ten-minute spin. Careful: It's addictive.

Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can use this Web-based software.

This story, "Real-time wiki Hackpad makes Web collaboration fast and easy" was originally published by PCWorld.

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