Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

...since sliced bread

Wikis, as a rule, suck.

I say this as someone who spent the last year and a half working at what is generally considered to be a "wiki company". I hated wikis before I went to Jot, and now having seen the strange cult of wiki even closer (Jot's competition), I haven't been dissuaded from my view. In return for a single interaction win, WikiWords, wikis throw away most of what is obvious and basic usability design. Had Jot not been committed to doing WYSIWYG in a wiki right, I would never have gone to work there. Heck, the one thing that 37signals got right about writeboard is that users don't want a wiki. They totally missed the point that end-user simplicity sometimes comes down to hard engineering, but that's for another day.

Users pick wikis (and tools like sharepoint) because they want to share the stuff they're writing. Not because they think that wikis are cool or somehow superior to everything that came before and/or after. Sounds obvious, huh?

WikiWords as the potential basis for an interesting collaboration tool: good. Wikis as a religious creed about some sort of artificial "simplicity" related to one-off markup languages: very bad.

Today Jot quietly launched a new major version, 2.6. This version includes a brand-new editor component implemented as a Dojo widget. That it's Dojo-based isn't something to be proud of in itself, but the new editor provides fixes to some of the most serious issues that plague WYSIWYG on the web today. Instead of taking you to an "editing" interface for a page, the new system uses Ajax-based editing to "upgrade" the page in-place so that editing is as fluid and natural as reading.

No more forgetting what it was you were going to change as you wait for the editing interface to load. Just change it.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the new editor component does everything it possibly can to avoid data loss. Browsers do a pretty good job of keeping data that's been filled out in a form around in case you accidentally hit a link or otherwise go to a page and want to come back to where you were. WYSIWYG editors, by comparison, totally flub this since they aren't native components that the browser knows to save state for. Jot's new editor fixes this with some sleight of hand, and the hope is that you won't even notice it. That it Just Works (TM) is its best feature.

The new editor works on IE, Firefox, Safari, and Opera 9 (modulo some Opera bugs), doesn't break the native undo stack, instantiates much faster than other WYSIWYG controls, and doesn't impose the lame "dueling scrollbars" scenario on users. Instead of having independent scroll bars for editor content and for the page, Jot's editor supports a "fixed toolbar" system that allows it to grow in height with the content, but never loose the editing controls at the top of the page when in editing mode. All of this has been made available as Open Source software in Dojo 0.3.0 via the dojo.widget.Editor2 component.

While the Jot editor is a thing of technical beauty, hopefully users will never think about it. Having been working with it for months, I can say that while I don't think about using the new version, I certainly become annoyed when I run across a wiki that's not using it. The experience isn't as fluid...everything else just feels clunky by comparison. The new editor is the system we all envisioned a year ago when Paul first started evaluating how to improve the WYSIWYG experience. By doing our homework about what makes a great experience and by staying true to the mantras of "never break undo" and "WYSIWYG, not semantics", Jot now sports an editor component that is second to none.

Of course, the Jot team should also be tremendously proud of the Tracker v2 (screencast) release that is now integrated into Salesforce. I'm not sure when it'll roll out to current Tracker users, but having a look at the screencast should make users of Tracker v1 salivate for the new version. For most interactions, it's nearly indistinguishable from Excel.

From here on out, I'm just an observer to the stuff Jot is building, but the new Tracker and Wiki releases help reassure me that our time was well spent. These products get out of the users way and help them get their work done or help them to express themselves better, but do it with the advantages of the web built in from the ground up. These aren't products that can't think outside the monopoly, these are tools that make people's lives easier...because that's what they were designed and engineered to do.

I'm proud to have played a small part in building them.