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Traveling the Web Together

A browser plug-in aims to make it far simpler to browse the Web with friends.

Many online activities are deeply social: writing and reading blogs, visiting social-networking sites, sending instant messages and e-mails, and making Internet phone calls. However, actually browsing the Internet is usually still a solitary pursuit.

Researchers from the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, VA, hope to change that with software called RCB (for real-time collaborative browsing) that makes it far simpler to connect with another person as he or she clicks around the Web.

There are already a few ways to navigate through Web pages collaboratively, but each has its limitations. Trailfire, for example, lets a user record her Web sessions but doesn’t allow users to browse together at the same time. Another service, called Weblin, provides a way to annotate sites with animations and avatars, but it is only geared toward interacting on a single Web page. More powerful “screen sharing” lets users browse together as if sharing the same machine, but this normally involves connecting to an outside server.

What sets RCB apart, says Haining Wang, an assistant professor of computer science at William and Mary, is its simplicity. Only the person leading a session needs to have a browser extension installed–others can then participate with any standard Web browser. “This makes cobrowsing very simple and practical,” Wang says. The researchers suggest that RCB could be particularly useful for businesses offering customer support, for distance-learning courses, or for friends who want to share links.

To use RCB, one person has to install a Firefox browser extension. This allows her to generate a session URL that can be sent to other participants. When a second user clicks on the URL, the host’s RCB extension sends him to a Web page that then connects him to the first person’s browser. Once connected, both users can interact with a Web page and follow links, with all actions funneled through the host’s browser. The host also retains control over the session and can add or remove participants as needed. A host can connect to up to 10 participants without losing too much performance, but the researchers say that RCB is best suited for two people at a time.

“There is a real desire by users to share URLs with collaborators in real time,” says Meredith Ringel Morris, a computer scientist in the adaptive systems and interaction group at Microsoft Research, who launched a collaborative search tool called SearchTogether last year. A survey conducted by Morris in 2006 found that 30 percent of participants said that they had tried to browse with others using instant messaging.

Morris says that the researchers’ efforts to simplify cobrowsing through RCB “are a big step in the right direction.” Users with limited technical skills could especially benefit from a cobrowsing tool, Morris says, since it allows a more experienced Internet user to walk them through unfamiliar tasks. Because this needs to be easy to do, she says, it’s important that RCB uses a regular Web browser.

On the other hand, Morris worries that RCB places too much of a burden on the host of a cobrowsing session. As the system is currently implemented, a user can only set up a session if she knows her computer’s host name or Internet protocol (IP) address, as well as the number of an unused transmission control protocol (TCP) port.

Vladimir Estivill-Castro, a professor at the School of Information and Communication Technology at Griffith University, in Australia, who has studied the usability of cobrowsing tools, says that the approach “seems rather convenient.” But he thinks that more work needs to be done to improve the system so that many users can take actions on a single Web page.

RCB is not yet available to the public, but the researchers presented their work last week at the Usenix Technical Conference, in San Diego. Wang says that his group filed a provisional patent last September with the hope of getting the technology adopted by major browser vendors.

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