About Collaborative Editing


Douglas Engelbart demonstrated how two people connected over a network could work together editing a document at the same time in 1968. It took much longer to see a real product.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



A special thanks to all our supporters–without you, none of this would be possible. Become a supporter at the Know A Little More Patreon page for exclusive content and ad-free episodes.

Thanks to Kevin MacLeod of Incompetech.com for the theme music.

Thanks to Garrett Weinzierl for the logo!

Thanks to our mods, Kylde, Jack_Shid, KAPT_Kipper, and scottierowland on the subreddit

Send us email to [email protected]

Episode transcript:

Douglas Adams is a hero to computer geeks everywhere. His Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy right there with Monty Python in the Hall of Geek memes. Legend has it Adams was one of the first people in the UK to get a Macintosh computer. And on that Mac he used a program called FullWrite. We could probably do a whole episode on the rise and fall of FullWrite. It had one of the first true What You See is What You get interfaces, handled long documents particularly well and included an outliner. A true dream list of features for writers in 1988. Scientist and writer Douglas Hofstader was also a big fan. But it was also buggy and eventually it was crushed by Microsoft Word.
So why bring it up? Its lead engineer was a guy named Steve Newman. And in 1989, a young programmer named Steve Schillace joined as a programmer on FullWrite. Those two got to know each other, and later, with the help of a self-described party person, Claudia Carpenter, they would revolutionize how everyone works every day.
Let’s help you know a little more about Collaborative Editing.
That’s Douglas Engelbart in 1968, demonstrating how two people connected over a network could work together editing a document at the same time. It was one of the many impressive technological advancements Engelbart showed off- the mouse, hyperlinks, video conferencing and more. if you missed our episode on that, you definitely want to go back and take a listen.
One of the themes from that episode, that people who did listen already know, is that almost nothing came out of that demo directly. It was oddly too far ahead of its time. But Collaborative editing takes the cake on that point. It would be 35 years or so between Engelbart’s demo of collaborative editing in 1968 and the rise of mainstream use of that technology.
One of the *earliest* examples that had any significant use was Instant Update for the MacOS. And it didn’t arrive until 1991. Multiple users of Instant Update could edit a single document at the same time over a LAN – a local area network– so they had to be in the same location. And it needed a workgroup server to work. It didn’t catch on.
It wasn’t until the internet became widespread that real-time collaborative editing became common. One of the first successful efforts was from a student at Gdańsk University of Technology in Poland. Tom Dobrowolski created Multi-Editoro in 2003, later renamed MoonEdit. It used code from Ken Silverman’s BUILD video game Engine. Up to 14 users could edit at the same time, text from each person was highlighted a different color and it featured infinite undo and a time-slider so you could replay edits. It was available for Linux, Windows or FreeBSD, and it needed somebody to set up a server for it to work.
Then there was SubEthaEdit, named after the communication network in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. Oddly it was originally named Hydra but had to change the name to SubEthaEdit for legal reasons. It was put together in early 2003 in an attempt to win an Apple Design award, which it did, at Apple’s WWDC 2003. It was mainly a word processor but you could turn on a collaborative mode that worked without configuration on a LAN or with a little set up, over the internet. It’s still developed and you can get it on GitHib.
But neither Moonedit or SubethaEdit used the Web. And we were fast moving into a world where people didn’t want to download an app if they didn’t have to. That was thanks to Ajax, a name for a collection of web development techniques that could send and receive data in the background on a web page. Without Ajax a web page usually had to reload to significantly update itself. It wasn’t even new in 2003. It had been around since 1999. It wasn’t a language, just a way of using HTML, CSS, and javascript. But in 2003 it exploded in popularity as part of the Web 2.0 movement. Everybody was scrambling to make more dynamic web pages like Google’s Gmail.
Among the folks playing with Ajax were Steve Newman and Steve Schillace. Since last we saw them working on the doomed FullWrite, they had worked together on Claris Home Page, a what you see is what you get HTML editor, and started a company called BitCraft that developed a JavaScript application engine. They sold Bitcraft to Macromedia in 2000 and by 2002 were consulting with Intuit to build a customer manager for QuickBooks.
In the usability lab there they met Claudia Carpenter.
That’s how Carpenter described her teen years to the Clickup podcast. But by 1980 she was studying computer science at Cal State Chico and regularly topping her class. Out of college she worked as software engineer for HP for 6 years before moving over to Intuit where she eventually found herself working on QuickBooks and one day, in a conference room with Newman and Schillace.
After Carpenter had her second child, she wanted to try something new and get out of the office. So she, Newman and Schillace left Intuit to try some stuff. They worked in Newman’s attic room above his garage. A classic Silicon Valley story.
They didn’t know exactly what they were going to do but Schillace later told The Verge they knew they wanted to work with Ajax. In fact they started by just trying to find a way to keep document locking from getting in the way of two people working on the same document and eventually that led to a basic word processor. They referred to it as Docster, but later changed the name to Writely. They bet that users would want speed and the convenience of always having the latest version of a document available, so they wrote a lean 10 pages of javascript that didn’t include more advanced functions like rich formatting, margins or pagination. It was a version of collaborative editing that would have looked familiar to Douglas Engelbart.
They didn’t even include a save button which was one of the earliest complaints from a generation of computer users trained to save regularly or face the peril of a lost document. Carpenter’s brother was an MBA professor and made one of his classes do their assignments in Writely. Students complained about the limited features and lack of save button, so much, so, that Carpenter said they tried to get the dean to overrule her brother.
That experience led them to add the only other employee their small company would ever have, Jennifer Mazzon, another Intuit colleague, who Carpenter convinced to work for them as a second job. Mazzon eventually left Intuit to work on Writely full time.
Writely officially launched in August 2005. How did it go? Again Carpenter talking to the Clickup podcast:
It was popular. And they knew they would need help somehow to keep it working.
The group had always thought that Google was a likely home for their product but they spent the better part of a year being told no by Google then saying no to Google themselves and so on.
Sam Schillace took the meetings with Google and they eventually did lead to Google acquiring Writely on March 9, 2006.
Writely became Google Docs.
And as you know it didn’t stand alone.
That same year, Google acquired 2Web Technologies which was working on a collaborative spreadsheet, and the next year made two acquisitions to create Google Slides.
The popularity of Writely continued as Google Docs. And eventually Microsoft, the titan of word processing, bowed to the pressure and introduced Office Web apps in 2010.
And now collaborative editing is the norm. People use Google Docs and Office for the Web, every day. It’s normal. But it took a while to get there.
And the heroes of our story?
Steve Newman worked for Google as an engineer until 2010, then left for online storage company Box in 2011 and after his stint there, founded a data service company called Scalyr which he left after acquisition in February 2023. He now says on his LinkedIn that he’s “Blogging on AI and Climate Change while I think about what to do next.”
Schillace pursued a lot of projects. Among them he went to Box with Newman in 2010, then came back to Google in 2016 to work on Google Maps. But in September 2021, he left Google again, this time to become a deputy CTO at Microsoft.
And Claudia Carpenter left Google in 2010 to work on her own projects as Restartle & Girl Power Software, then worked with Steve Newman again at Scalyr until February 2021.
On her LinkedIn she says she’s retired but also that she is “absolutely terrible at retiring.”
And that wraps up the last and latest of the innovations of the Mother of all demos to come into the mainstream. This episode was written in Docster, wait no Writely, no, Google Docs.
In other words, I hope you Know a Little More about collaborative editing.
Know A Little More is available without ads to direct supporters at patreon.com/knowalittlemore. It was researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos and Dog and Pony Show Audio. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.