Google Purchase Redefines 'Real-Time' Collaboration

Google acquires EtherPad developer AppJet and sends team to help with Google Wave.

By Tony Bradley, PC World |  On-demand Software, AppJet, collaboration

Google announced on Friday that it is acquiring AppJet, a small startup with a focus on real-time online document collaboration. The AppJet team will be relocating "down under" to join the Google Wave team in Australia and help redefine "real-time" collaboration.

Many of the AppJet team formerly worked for Google according to the AppJet Web site. Chief executive officer Aaron Iba used to write algorithms for improving search quality, chief operating officer Daniel Clemens was an associate product manager, and chief technology officer J.D. Zamfirescu left Google as well.

Really Real-Time

AppJet has developed a unique approach to updating the shared display as different contributors type with its EtherPad tool. According to the EtherPad site "EtherPad is the only web-based word processor that allows people to work together in really real-time."
AppJet's EtherPad product has been compared with Google Docs. Both provide online, collaborative document editing. The EtherPad FAQ illustrates the distinctions between the two, though. "Google Docs is a suite of products that do many things, from word processing to spreadsheets to document management. One thing that Google Docs does not do is real-time collaborative text editing."

It goes on to explain that "with Google Docs it takes about 5 to 15 seconds for a change to make its way from your keyboard to other people's screens. Imagine if whiteboards or telephones had this kind of delay! In contrast, the EtherPad infrastructure is built to carry your every keystroke at the speed of light, limited only by the time it takes electrons to travel over a wire (such as an "ethernet" cable)."

I use the Google Docs spreadsheet and I can attest to the fact that the delay can sometimes cause conflict and confusion. While each of us sharing the spreadsheet have our own unique color that highlights the field we are currently working in, those 5 seconds are enough to allow for multiple contributors to write in the same filed--overwriting each other. He who types last wins.

Raising the Bar

The speed at which real-time changes are reflected on the shared page is arguably the most important technology that AppJet brings to Google, but there are other aspects of online collaboration that AppJet does better than Google as well.

EtherPad 'pads' can be shared by simply sending a link. Google Docs requires that all collaborators have Google Docs accounts and involves sending an email to invite users to join in sharing a doc.

EtherPad clearly highlights each user's contributions with a unique background color which makes it much less confusing to determine who wrote what. Google Docs has an "undo" feature, but the ability to undo an action lasts only until someone else changes something. EtherPad provides limitless "undo" capabilities.

Adding a Ripple to Google Wave

AppJet has a lot to offer for the ongoing development of Google Wave. The initial demo of Google Wave was very impressive and resulted in a lot of speculation and anticipation of what Google Wave may deliver.

Google Wave merges e-mail, instant messaging, online collaboration, and document sharing in one. If it can live up to the hype and expectations, Google Wave threatens to be a game changer for online collaboration, and possibly for unified communications as well.

The beta of Google Wave has had a fairly tepid reception, though. Users begged and pleaded for invites to join the Google Wave beta only to receive them and sign up and say "is this it?"
Combining the technology behind EtherPad's "pads" with Google Wave's "waves" will help boost Wave's functionality and move Google a step closer to delivering a robust platform capable of revolutionizing online communication.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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