Wikis have been among the more popular choices of online content management systems of late, particularly because of their collaborative nature. For instance, Wikipedia has grown to be a popular research destination for students (even as it is contested by schools) because of the extent of topics and the detailed contributions from the users.
For sharing and collaborating between two parties or within a closed group, Google Docs and Spreadsheets has proved to be formidable, too. You can just upload a Word document, Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation, and share it with your friends or colleagues, and they can edit these at the comfort of their web browsers, without the need to open other local applications like MS Office Word, Excel or PowerPoint (or even OpenOffice.org equivalents).
Still, editing is usually not live with some software like Wikis. Most of the time, when two collaborators are editing at the same time, the document may be locked for editing on a first-come first-served basis. In other cases, an editor would have to reconcile the differences between changes, or choose which is more acceptable.
This is where Google Docs and Spreadsheets shines. You can actually have two or more users editing the same single document at the same time, and the changes would be reflected in real time. It’s like having two or three people paint the same wall at the same time, with each able to either edit his own part of the wall, or make changes on any other part.
First we assume that a document is shared. So for instance here we share a spreadsheet.
And the receiver accepts the invitation to view the spreadsheet.
Now both of you can view and edit that particular spreadsheet. What’s great is that each of you is assigned a color, and your cursor will appear on its cell on your screen as your color (usually green or blue), and the other person as a different color (blue, red, etc). You can actually see the other person’s cursor move from one location to another as he navigates through the spreadsheet. So it really feels like both of you are editing the same thing in real time.
Now when the other person is editing a cell, that appears greyed-out, so there would be no conflicting edits.
The sheet will update automatically once the other person has finished editing the field.
You can hide your collaborator’s cursor in the Discuss tab by clicking the Hide collaborator’s locations link. You can actually do a chat here to talk about edits and other things.
As for documents, it’s not quite the same, because you cannot see other collaborators’ cursors live as you edit. You are only shown a brightly-colored line at the bottom that someone else is editing the document.
The document is updated for the latest changes every few seconds. But if you want to manually see the latest edits, you can click on the refresh link.
Now unlike spreadsheets, you cannot see where exactly the other person is editing. So in those cases that you edit the same word or line, the one who edits first gets priority, and the one who made the edition after the first one would be shown a message informing him about this conflict.
In these cases, you can copy the text (by pressing Ctrl-C as the popup says) to have the text copied to your clipboard for later pasting in elsewhere or even on the document itself later on, if you think your edition is better than the other person’s, after the document has refreshed.
There are pros and cons to real-time collaboration, of course. For one, there’s the saying that too many cooks can spoil the broth. So in editing a document, it might be better to have one person run-through the entire document first before being edited by the other person. But it’s also good to be able to edit your own parts of the same document, such as when you need several people’s inputs to be encoded into a single spreadsheet.
And then in some cases collaboration doesn’t necessarily have to be live and real-time at all. Still, Google Docs and Spreadsheets performs well in these circumstances.