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Thursday, November 20, 2008


EtherPad is a collaborative, real-time text editor created by, among others, two ex-Google employees*. An EtherPad document is quickly set up without any need for registration. You can then share the URL of the document, and others who will visit that page will then be able to see, in real-time, whatever you’re typing**. This has an interesting feel to it because there’s no “security buffer” as in typical chat programs: every letter you write will be shown as you write it, including occasional errors before you fix them.

[Edit: I removed the link to the document now, but you can start your own EtherPad of course...] Please join this EtherPad to give it a try (note your IP will show to others). [Update: I’m told EtherPad allows only 8 users maximum at a time. Thanks Guruz, Rossisen and Kirby!]

Yesterday, EtherPad was temporarily down every now and then, but otherwise quite interesting to use. I only tried it for basic chat, but the creators list use cases like meeting notes, teleconferencing, drafting and editing prose, and phone interviews for developers applying for a job. The EtherPad creators write, “With EtherPad, anyone in a meeting can contribute to the notes, or watch them as they’re typed.” They also say, “For phone calls in general, EtherPad serves as both a communication channel and a shared record”.

But wait, doesn’t Google Docs already offer this functionality? The EtherPad makers think the answer is no:

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. We think this is an important use case, so we built EtherPad with real-time collaboration as the focus.

For example, 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).

Also, the creators say, Google Docs doesn’t allow easy URL-based sharing of document that also can be edited, doesn’t allow undo for someone else’s changes, and won’t colorize edits by someone else. However, Google Spreadsheets, part of the Google Docs suite, does show colored cell borders (only during the time of editing, though), and it also has a document setting that allows anyone to edit without signing in, like for this document. Simlar to EtherPad, Google Spreadsheets also has a chat box next to the spreadsheet.

The company behind this product is called Appjet Inc., and EtherPad is built on top of the AppJet platform. The creators say, “We originally released AppJet as the easiest way to get a new web app online and hosted, starting with print("Hello world!"), and it has since expanded to support simple database-backed web apps. Over 2,500 apps have been built to date using the AppJet site.”

*David Greenspan, Aaron Iba, and J.D. Zamfirescu, the latter two previously at Google.

**Perhaps made possible due to the technique of Comet/ long-polling.

[Via Friendfeed/ TechCrunch.]

Update: I emailed the AppJet team some questions, and they got back with their answers.

Do you have more potential use cases than the ones [currently listed]? Could EtherPad be used for games, general chat, embedding into other sites or blogs ...?

I’m sure there are many more potential uses. Students come to mind. Today, people have been using it for chat. We’ve got reports of people writing short stories collaboratively (like the games you play as a kid where you alternate adding a word to build a narrative), and probably others we haven’t thought of.

The killer feature we use ourselves, which is why we built it originally, is for meeting notes and drafting prose. For example, we’re collaboratively writing the response to this email using etherpad right now.

Do you believe Google Docs could/ would want to catch up with you guys anytime soon in terms of things like speed and color coding? Are you worried about that?

Well, I care a lot about realtime collaboration, so if I were Google Docs, I would want to catch up. But they may have other priorities. As a user, I stil use Google Docs for some things, like opening up a word document as a web page, but it’s not really usable for realtime text sync. So I guess I see the two products as complementary right now.

Would you want to expand this into a series of tools, like spreadsheets?

Spreadsheets aren’t really on our radar right now. There’s so much that can be done with just plain text. We have one really exciting feature planned that no text editor that we know of (on the web or desktop) has ever done before, but I can’t talk about it yet :).

When did Aaron Iba, and when did J.D. Zamfirescu quit Google?

Aaron left march 2007. J.D. left october 2007.

Would it have been possible to develop EtherPad within Google (the company)?

I don’t know, I’d have to think about that more.


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