Writeboard from 37signals

Although just a soft-launch for now, I decided to take a look at the application; especially after a thorough review by Solution Watch.

Writeboard is a web-based collaborative writing tool allowing multiple authors to go in and edit a single document. Based on that description alone, I thought of Writely but the two don't really compare. As Brian of Solution Watch mentions, 37signals has really stuck to the less-is-more mantra with this one. The feature set is sparse with no wysiwyg editor and minimal navigation. For example, you create writeboards, give them a name and share them with the URL and password you assigned the whiteboard but there's no central location for managing all your writeboards. There's not really the usual "user accounts" mentality that most site have.

One of the questions that come to mind is who is their target audience? Formatting is only possible with the use of *bold* and _italics_ markers among a few others for lists and blockquoting. There's no tables or other word-processing like features. As a result, I feel that the site is aimed at a more technical group although I do not doubt that many non-technical people will make use of the site. It'll also be used by people that need to work on certain types of documents that don't require heavy formatting.

Writeboard screenshot

A feature that I found confusing was the "Mark this version" button. I wasn't entirely sure why I was marking it or what I was marking it for. Perhaps different terminology would make this feature clearer; maybe something like Set as Important. Also, the purple dots beside each version could be made clearer using a more descriptive alt or title text or better yet, include a rollover that details what the dots mean (they indicate the amount of change in the document from one version to the next).

I'm also intrigued as to why you can only Export as Text. Why not RTF or Word or PDF? Export as Text leaves me with no formatting. Using the email feature did send me the writeboard in its HTML format but there was no indication as to what the email was about. The writeboard name was the subject line and the writeboard contents was the email. In fact, this could become a great way to set up e-mail newsletters (or spam but let's hope there's spam control in there).

Nice features include version comparison and overall responsiveness. The version comparison tool does well in highlighting changes and with such a minimal interface, the site loads very quickly. No obscene javascripts or fancy widgets to load.

This is a pre-release web application and the feature set is likely to change before the official launch. I'd be interested to hear how others plan to use Writeboard?

Published October 02, 2005 · Updated October 02, 2005
Categorized as Quick Links
Short URL: https://snook.ca/s/421

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Scrivs said on October 03, 2005

"Official" launch is Monday so I don't know how much can change between now and then. Technically it's Monday here now...

Chris Mewhort said on October 03, 2005

Without using it at all -- I do have to mention that your concept of it being used to spam was RIGHT on the money. That was the first thing that sprung to my mind so I sincerely hope they've put in spam control.

Jonathan Snook said on October 03, 2005

Scrivs: Oh, go figure. I read somewhere that it was a "soft launch" and having seen them already make changes I thought more might be in soon.

Well, rumour (I heard from a guy who heard from a guy) that WYSIWYG may be going in. I guess we'll see how it goes.

Jean Marc said on October 04, 2005

"There's no tables or other word-processing like features."

They're use the textile markup as in basecamp, which means tables can be created by putting cells between horizontal bars (these guys | ).

The problem is, they haven't included the CSS necessary to display tables as actual tables so this isn't working to nicely so far.

It should take no more than 5 minutes to create the CSS needed. Don't get it...

Jonathan Snook said on October 04, 2005

Jean Marc: thanks for the heads up on that one. Unfortunately, it's not documented and you're right, it needs the CSS to see it.

My biggest problem with textile markup is that it's not intuitive for non-technical users. Heck, even I don't find it intuitive. Sure you can figure it out but it requires the user to learn a new syntax which keeps them from doing what they should be doing: writing.

They've also been making some other changes in the meantime such as a larger Edit button. Although, it would seem more practical to have it as HTML text instead of as an image.

Jean Marc said on October 04, 2005

I agree about textile markup. I've personally ended up finding in 'fun' somehow, once you get to know it.

There definitely is a learning curve for most people, and I guess people that code just tend to find it easier to pick up.

That said, there's a girl in our office who is completely non-techie but has great memory, and she just 'got it' right away.

I think lightweight markup languages are gratifying because in the end they're faster. It takes less time to tag something between asterisks than it does to click on a button with your mouse, or even shift-select using the keyboard and then using a shortcut (like ctrl-B say).

About the buttons, yup, I just noticed as I'm trying writeboard out right now to edit the feature-list of some rails app we're working on.

If it wasn't for the fact that the buttons have this 'niceness' about them I'd be annoyed too. To me, image buttons are reminders of the olden days, relics from a time when the pixel was king and text was the underdog. It's the videogame freak in me talking I think.

Wesley Walser said on October 05, 2005

I think there could be some connection between their attempted buzz words 'appless web-app' and the fact that there is no central location for all of your boards, and very little navigating over all.

I could see using this for copy writing in cooperation with a client, but the addition of more intuitive formatting would be really nice for this purpose.

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