Everything's all Writeboard
Web-based text editing just got simple
It's free, it's fast, and in five seconds, you're writing." That's how Jason Fried describes Writeboard, a new Web application from his Chicago-based company, 37 Signals. Writeboard (www.writeboard.com), which launched October 3, is almost that simple—it's a Web-based text editor that creates a no-frills way to collaborate on a text document. 37 Signals has posted a few examples of what people can do with Writeboard—"collaborate on an essay with my classmates," "Write and revise a song, poem, or short story," "have my co-workers help me write my resignation letter"—and the company is using Writeboard to collectively edit their upcoming book.
"Every product [37 Signals builds] is built for us initially," Fried says, and Writeboard came about when his team tried to write, edit and share small chunks of text. "If you're writing a paragraph or two, which most of us are, most of the tools are too bloated," Fried says. E-mail is a lousy text-editing interface, and using Microsoft Word is a huge pain. Writeboard facilitates streamlined editing: You write a paragraph in Writeboard, and pass along the URL and password to whomever, and he or she logs in and makes changes. Writeboard tracks the edits made to a document so you can compare versions (new words are highlighted in green, deleted words are crossed out), and you can leave comments underneath. There's no downloading attachments, and no scrolling down through old versions.
According to Fried, simple has never been hotter. He cites del.icio.us, the social bookmarking tool, and Upcoming.org, a open-forum events calendar, as two great examples of "tackling smaller problems with smaller products."
"I think software should be doing less," he says. "Most software is overkill. It's all a hassle." To that end, Fried and the 37 Signals crew have developed Basecamp and Backpack, two popular project-management Web applications, and Ta-da List, a list creation and organization Web app. "Simplicity is better. Clarity is better," he says. "People are frustrated with too much stuff. We're all just constantly being bombarded."
Writeboard, even in comparison to the similarly pared-down Basecamp and Backpack, is pretty sparse. You can style text (bold, italics), but that's it. No spell-checker, no fonts, no fancy formatting, no notes, no thesaurus, no automatic saving. It's extremely bare, but it's sophisticated: You can export your document as HTML or text files. Writeboard is exceptionally easy to use, mostly because there's just not a lot to figure out.
In a lot of ways, Writeboard is like a wiki—it's easy to add and edit content, you can track changes, it's simple to use. (A wiki is a site or web application in which users can easily add or edit pages, and wiki pages are typically interconnected with loads of links. Wikipedia.org, a collaborative encyclopedia, is probably the best known and most popular.) But upon Writeboard's launch, the 37 Signals team was adamant that Writeboard wasn't a wiki, even writing a post on their popular design blog Signal vs. Noise (http://www.37signals.com/svn), "What makes a wiki a wiki? (Or, not everything is a wiki!)." Writeboard's original FAQ said "wikis are icky," but that portion has since been changed. "I still sort of believe that," Fried says, "but that wasn't the point that needed to be made." Writeboard lacks the simple linking systems, among other things, that make wikis. "The kind of people we want to use Writeboard don't have to know about wikis," Fried says.
So far, Writeboard is off to a strong start. Fried says more than 10,000 pages were created the day Writeboard launched, and he expects continued growth. Fried says he expects people to use it imaginatively. "Basecamp was written for small design agencies, but it turned out that people were using it to manage their weddings, students were using it for group projects, the Red Cross was using it to coordinate people. It's a very general, simple tool...I suspect Writeboard will kind of be the same."