Google eyes Sparrow to simplify Web collaboration

Until now, writing to the Web has been much more difficult than ''reading to it.'' That is why, in September, Xerox Corp. will begin licensing a technology called SparrowWeb.

SparrowWeb is a Web-based, template-driven system that simplifies Web-based collaboration by allowing all members of a group to create and edit Web pages, even if they lack HTML skills. It is already being used by no less a technology star than Google to organize development efforts.

The technology was originally developed by the vaunted PARC subsidiary of Xerox.

The original idea behind SparrowWeb ''was to make the Web an ideal collaboration medium,'' said Tao Liang, manager for advanced development in Xerox's DocuShare business unit. ''We can have many people read the same page on the Web at the same time, but writing to the Web is very difficult. The idea of SparrowWeb is to make writing to the Web as easy as reading to it.''

The first generation of the product appeared in 1996 as WebEdit, a technology that was designed to permit the editing of an entire page of HTML via a browser. In 1998, an update appeared that was implemented in the Python scripting language. 'The idea was to have HTML pages that were lightweight and portable, and that could be moved to other places and everything, including business logic and formatting information, would go with them,' said Liang. This, he said, would make it easy for users to customize them or modify their look and feel. When the technology was subsequently ported to Java, its name was changed to SparrowWeb.

One of SparrowWeb's popular uses has been for meeting management. People in different locations can define a meeting template and then upload it using the SparrowWeb interface. Multiple people can capture the minutes of a meeting, and their edits can be reflected instantly; at the end of the meeting, you have one page with all the content from the many contributors. ''With other cooperative tools, the collaborative content sits in a repository and to refer back to it, you need a valid license and client,'' said Liang. ''With SparrowWeb, what you capture is openly accessible.''

One of the first companies to beta test SparrowWeb was search-engine maker Google. According to Bay-Wei Chang, senior research scientist at Google, the company began using the SparrowWeb beta two years ago because it was in need of a solution that would allow it to collaborate in a Web-based environment -- Sparrow filled this need.

Google currently uses SparrowWeb for a variety of Web-based tasks -- the management of engineering projects, collecting internal feedback on demo versions of new services and managing a company-wide launch calendar -- as well as for more mundane tasks, such as getting feedback on lunch and dinner menu items, and organizing and scheduling intramural sports.

Although Chang would not give details about the type or size of development projects SparrowWeb is used for, he said that 'every Google employee worldwide has access to SparrowWeb and many of them make use of it.'

Xerox, in some folks' opinion, has let a few PARC technologies get away from them over the years. A few probably bemoan the day the PARC crew showed the graphical user interface to Apple's Steve Jobs. Now, it seems, Xerox is out to capitalize on Sparrow. It will now be the exclusive licensee of SparrowWeb technology and will offer it as an add-on to its DocuShare collaborative content and document management product. That means new and existing customers will need to run DocuShare on their server to use SparrowWeb.

SparrowWeb users will be able to publish information to the Web easily, edit Web documents simultaneously and customize Sparrow with the new DocuShare software development kit (SDK). According to Xerox officials, beta customers are currently using the SDK to bring add-on components such as production-level scanning, forms processing and archiving to DocuShare.

Because SparrowWeb technology works off file systems instead of document repositories, it requires a content management product like Xerox's DocuShare to have robust features of permission and version control, and group management. ''Those are critical components of a usable Web system,'' noted Colman Murphy, DocuShare product manager.

According to Murphy, two trends are driving the need for collaborative software development products such as SparrowWeb: the move to outsourcing development, and the proliferation of ''large umbrella'' software development projects.

The surge in outsourcing development, said Murphy, has led to development teams spread over several continents. Because of the resulting time differences, there may be only one hour of overlap in working time between some teams. ''Ordinary e-mail has become the primary tool of interaction,'' he said, ''but e-mail is often cumbersome and there is no central record of communication. If you need to have one record, people need to synchronize it and remake it. In those instances, collaborative development tools like SparrowWeb become critical.''

As for umbrella development projects, suggested Murphy, open-source software development projects like Apache contain so many subprojects that managing the hundreds of associated engineering tasks becomes a major task in itself. In situations like these, engineers are using SparrowWeb as a location to propose their ideas to management; management can then look at these and decide which ones to fund.

Once a project is funded, members of that project can use SparrowWeb as a project management database and contribute a brief status report. A weekly report is then generated from these snippets and sent directly to executive management.

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