A Word Processor That Keeps Track

TextFlow claims to have a novel approach to online collaboration.

Despite the many tools already available for collaborative word processing, most people would still rather e-mail different versions of a document to each other. TextFlow, a new Web-based word processor from Swedish company Nordic River, hopes to change that by making collaboration easier and letting users benefit from its features even if their collaborators use other word-processing software.

In the flow: TextFlow analyzes multiple versions of the same document using algorithms borrowed from DNA analysis. Once it identifies the parts that have been altered, it creates a colored sidebar showing those changes, which a user can accept or reject.

TextFlow is just the latest Web-based word processor to arrive on the scene in recent years. Others contenders include Writely (later Google Docs), Adobe’s Buzzword, and the Zoho suite from AdventNet. But Tomer Shalit, CEO of Nordic River, hopes that TextFlow’s powerful approach to online collaboration will set it apart.

The most obvious selling point of TextFlow is the way that it merges multiple versions of the same document into a single version with suggested changes arranged side by side. Users can merge documents edited using TextFlow itself with ones written using Microsoft Word. When multiple versions of the same document are imported, TextFlow uses algorithms originally developed to compare DNA to identify the differences between each version of the text. The software classifies changes made to sentences and those made to entire paragraphs or sections of a document, and it can also track when a paragraph has been moved to a different section. TextFlow assigns a different color to text from each version of the document and organizes the changes on a single page. A user can select which version to keep by moving her mouse over a suggested change and clicking to accept or reject it.

“Having one integrated view is certainly an advance,” says Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner Research, who follows Web applications. By addressing the confusion that can occur when multiple users edit a single document, he says, TextFlow has hit upon “a definite small problem.” However, he notes that the advantage may be short lived, as competitors could add similar functionality.

Another subtle but important advantage to TextFlow is that it’s built to play nicely with users who haven’t already signed up to employ the service. A user can export a document from TextFlow to another format, or send a link to the TextFlow version to a collaborator, who does not need to sign up for an account in order to view and edit it.

TextFlow was built using Adobe’s AIR software, which lets Web applications run even when a computer isn’t connected to the Internet, and which also provides easier access to files on a user’s machine. Because of this, a user can import Word documents to TextFlow by dragging and dropping them from the desktop into the browser. She can also make edits offline, although it is not yet possible to merge documents using TextFlow while offline.

TextFlow launched two weeks ago, and (as with many other Web apps) new features are still being added. The most important feature on the horizon, Shalit says, is the ability to share a document without needing permission from the original owner. Most online word processors consider a document to belong to a particular owner who can then give other users permission to read, comment on, or edit it. With TextFlow, the document’s creator can still select how to incorporate others’ changes into her version of the file, but she doesn’t control how the file moves among other users.

Nicholas Romano, an associate professor of management science and information systems at Oklahoma State University, who studies online collaboration, says that merging text is a complex task, and it’s not always obvious to users how making changes to one section of a document might affect another. “A lot of these tools are being used by people without experience working collaboratively,” Romano says. He believes that it would be useful for Web word processors to include better collaborative features, and he adds that a timeline or agenda showing tracked changes could make collaborative writing even easier.

Unlike desktop word-processing programs such as Word, TextFlow is not designed for layout. The interface includes only the basic tools needed to edit documents, and it doesn’t currently support links, tables, or images. The software is free for users to try, but Nordic River charges $99 per individual for a year of professional use. Shalit says that the professional version will get additional features in the future. The company doesn’t primarily expect to support itself with sales of the product, however. Instead, it hopes to make deals with others, combining TextFlow’s capabilities with those companies’ products.

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