Groupthink Made Easy

Writeboard37signals released Writeboard today, the latest release in what’s surely shaping up to be 37signals Office — a line of indispensable productivity applications that all happen to be intimately and prohibitively hooked into one another. So, look out Microsoft.

I’m only half kidding about that last bit, but it is true that Writeboard is now open for business and, being 100% free and almost completely great, I’m sure there will be plenty of business to be had.

The product is best described as a collaborative, versioning online text editor, and at first I thought it was the super-elegant wiki creation tool that I’ve been anticipating for a long time. As it turns out, Writeboard purposefully eschews wiki-linking (too “techy,” Jason Fried told me) and instead favors a reductive, straightforward approach to allowing people to jointly create documents.

Now with 20% More Usability

Below: Writing about Writeboard. Notes on the new 37signals application collaboratively edited from three different locations.

Even so, Writeboard is probably also the first 37signals tool that I’ll use frequently and to its full potential. As much admiration as I have for its predecessors, I’ve never been able to integrate those products into my working style. Basecamp, for instance, is tempting, but more than anything I want it running on my own server, where I can tweak it to my heart’s content — I’d be very keen to see it offered as a standalone installer similar to Movable Type, but I probably shouldn’t hold my breath.

Sample Writeboard

Backpack, while a lucid and ingenious translation of Basecamp-like features into personal productivity tools, seems limited in its collaborative capabilities, rendering its case for sharing personal documents less compelling for me than it might seem to others. I’ve made a consistent and conscientious effort to make the most of my Backpack account, but it still hasn’T felt completely natural to me the way a desktop note-keeper like Hog Bay Notebook does.

Write Away

Writeboard, on the other hand, has seemed much more comfortable to me from the very start. The whole reason we put things on the Web is so that others can share them, of course, and so allowing those with whom we share a document to take part in its authorship, too, is a logical progression — it’s the missing ingredient from my Backpack experiences.

Really, there’s no other software solution in the world that will allow me to collaborate on a new document as quickly and painlessly as Writeboard. That includes the more fine-grained Track Changes feature of the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, and the considerably more esoteric but also vastly more robust real-time collaboration of SubEthaEdit — both of which offer more impressive variants on what Writeboard does at its core but that also fall short on getting me started out of the box. Neither of them will allow me to almost instantly get up and running with a brand new document with someone on the other side of the world, perhaps working on a completely different computing platform and with a completely different level of experience than me. Writeboard does this exceedingly well.

How Suite It Is

If you thought I was being cheeky earlier about the idea of “37signals Office,” consider this: Writeboard is free to use, but to organize and archive your Writeboards, you need a Backpack account. Yes, that’s correct, Writeboard is a “gateway app,’ the kind that’s easy to get started using and harmless enough on its own, but that soon leads to harder, more serious apps. All kidding aside, its inherent usefulness does give Backpack a newer lease on life for me — it remakes Backpack as more than just a collection of the functionality it launched with several months ago, but also as a kind of platform for future ’signals products. This is all conjecture, but watch that space.

  1. I played with Writeboard earlier tonight after seeing Zeldman’s mention. I have to agree that it is quite clever and quite slick, of course. Unfortunately, I just don’t see the utility for myself. Much easier to just open TextEdit.

    That said, I’m not a collaborator type. For those working in groups, obviously the target for this, it’s gonna be great. It’s quite nice to use and if you’re familiar with Textile style formatting it’s a piece of cake.

    Their mention that it’s a great tool for solo users is pushing things a bit much. Yes, I like the revision tracking but that’s not enough to get me to use my browser for jotting notes.

  2. I got very excited when they announced Writeboard, but I’m not impressed beyond its techological ability. I’m a poor grad student who would love to work in this collaborative environment (and organize stuff via Backpack or Basecamp), but it’s a bit frustrating that you can fit only two writeboards in the free Backpack, especially if you only find that out after you’ve written writeboard #2. Bummer.

  3. I just use Microsoft Words “Tracking” ability for this functionality. It’s much better and embedded in the word document that will utilimately be used anyways.

  4. Great article, good input! on top of all hats up for 37.

    Khoi, consider re-visiting the meaning of Groupthink, it’s a term used for reffering to the effect of a Group on group members ideas.

    Check this out, Groupthink


  5. I find it hard to see the appeal of Writeboard. To me, the collaborative element is hamstrung by the fact the only one person can edit a document at a time. And the fact that they launched without thinking this through (it was only after they launched that they added the ‘someone is already editing this page, any changes you make might be lost / will overwrite their changes’ warning) is quite interesting. If you’re limited to turn-based document editing – why not just bounce a text email between each other. You get versioning, ‘push’ notification, privacy. And you can kick off a thousand of them for free.

    I think the ability of wikis to create ad-hoc pages is so compelling it’s hard to fathom why 37 signals didn’t think it important – or at least a worthy challenge to apply their usability engineering skills to. Even if you’re not creating some encylopedia-style collection of documents – I would think the wiki approach is far better for working with multi-page documents than the kludge you would need to come up with to do this on Writeboard as it currently stands.

    I just can’t see how between SubEthaEdit and Jot Live there is much market left over for Writeboard to tap. This time I don’t think the 37s have come up to par with the competition. And I am generally a fan not to mention a paying Backpack user, by the way.

    As an aside, it’s also quite baffling how every 2nd web 2.0 project seems to be a collaborative document editor. I struggle to see the broad appeal of these products, well, other than to geographically diverse groups of developers working on web 2.0 projects 😉 I think the downfall of this whole web 2.0 revolution could be that we end up with a bunch of products that are shiny, sexy and completely irrelevant to the average internet user.

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