Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Pencil Boxes

And now for something completely different.

School will be starting again soon, in the U.S. and Canada, at least. And for me September always carries with it childhood memories of buying new school supplies -- immaculate, crisp pencils; pristine pads of wonderfully wobbly paper; see-through plastic rulers, or the wooden ones with the metal edge, neither of which seemed to get used; and pencil boxes, those delightful containers with the sliding tongue.

Not as much fun in law school perhaps. But there are some school tools that are intriguing and enjoyable to play with -- and that might meet a particular need. I want to point you to three of these today; maybe others will share others via the comments function.

First is a new one on the block called Writely. It offers a free way to create documents using a browser. Documents are stored on Writely's servers and are accessible only via a password, though you can let others view them by registering their email addresses. Indeed, they can be permitted to collaborate on the document, so this becomes a useful possiblity for groups to work together on projects. Documents created on-line are in html format, and there's a decent editor to help you use tables, images, links... the whole nine yards. In fact, it seems to me that one of the best uses of Writely for some folks might be as a wysiwyg html editor: create the document and then download it to your own machine for other uses.

You can upload documents you've created in Word or html editors or in text editors, so this can operate as a simple document sharing tool, as well as a back-up tool. Writely's worth a look.

Less polished but much more fun, in my view, is Webnote, which seems to be a proof-of-concept project of a "novice software engineer working at Google." This is a remarkable note-taking tool you use in your browser. I say remarkable because it lets you do a bunch of things that just aren't possible with your trad word processors and the like. Notes are made in resizable coloured boxes rather like Stickies; you can make as many as you like on a page, in a whole variety of colours; they overlap each other if necessary, and clicking on one brings it to the fore. But the real kicker for me is that you can move them around within the window as if they were objects on your desktop. Moreover, you can treat the colours as labels or tags and by clicking on the same-coloured button cause all of the blue notes, for example, to come to the fore. In theory you could simply stack notes upon notes in one single window, but make that supportable by using colours and the ability to filter notes according to content, seeing all the notes, for example that contain the phrase OOTJ.

Just in case this isn't enough fun, both Writely and Webnote allow you to create an RSS feed for your site.

I've made a test OOTJ site in Webnote for you to look at. But you can make your own with no fuss at all. The only downside, in my view, is that you can't password protect your site, and so anyone who has the URL can jump in a change things at will. The makes Webnote no good for sensitive stuff, but quite cool for foolling around and the occasional quick collaboration.

Finally there's PeanutButterWiki. Also a collaborative tool, as the "wiki" suggests, this one allows you to make your site private or public, and to restrict entry to a private site to those of your choice. It's free and seems pretty straightforward. Again, I've made a OOTJ test wiki (public) for you to fool around in, but creating your own is no challenge at all.

There's no telling how long these services will be around or how long they'll be free. But then the pencils that were new at the start of school eventually got ground down to stubs and chewed up, and the scribbled on pages got torn out of the binders, which also got lost along with lunch bags... so these considerations are no impediments to fun. And with services like these available there's also no impediment to anyone's blogging, collaborating, setting up RSS feeds, backing up, file sharing...

I think I hear the bell.

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