Collaboration was always one of the goals of the Internet, but for a long time, the tools lagged the vision. Nowadays, though, we have wikis, instant messaging, and other software that allows people to work together. Even Microsoft is getting into the act by pushing its expensive and proprietary SharePoint software onto unsuspecting businesses around the world.
But what about something more simple? How about a tool that allows a distributed team work on the same document at the same time, and even chat about the changes being made? Science fiction or fact?
Mac OS X
users have had the very nice SubEthaEdit
) available to them for years, but it costs $35 and only works on Macs. Now Linux users have a similar tool: Gobby.
Gobby is GPL software that’s built to work on Linux, of course, but is also available on Windows and Mac OS X, meaning that teams using disparate operating systems can still work together (once again Linux developers work hard to write software that all computer users can use… but that’s another rant for the future).
Installing Gobby is easy for users of Debian- based distros: just run apt-get install gobby. You’ll be asked if you want to install additional packages, so go ahead and agree. If you’re using Fedora Core, yum install gobby does the trick; for other distros, search Google for gobby installationguide (note that the words are run together since it’s a wiki page).
Unfortunately, installing these packages isn’t enough if you want to use Gobby collaboratively, as you’ll discover when you start Gobby up for the first time and receive the following error message:
Howl initialization failed. Probably you need to run
mDNSResponder as root prior to Gobby. Zeroconf
support is deactivated for this session.
In typical Linux fashion, the error message is cryptic and jargon-laden. It translates (roughly) to, “You need to run an additional command, at least if you’re using K/Ubuntu or another Debian-like system.”
# apt-get install avahi-daemon libnss-mdns zeroconf
These packages add support for Zeroconf,
a technology pioneered by Apple
(known there formerly as Rendezvous
and now as Bonjour
) that uses DNS
to discover services such as printing and file sharing on a Local Area Network. For more about this innovation, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeroconf
Your system should have automatically started the Avahi daemon when it installed that namesake package. If it didn’t, you’ll need to start it manually. On a Debian-based machine, that would mean /etc/init.d/avahi-daemon start. Now, when you start up Gobby, you shouldn’t get a warning. However, you’re still not working collaboratively. You basically have a simple text editor open in front of you. If you want to start a session that others can join, press the Create session button. Leave the “Port” field alone, choose a “Name” for yourself, enter a “Password,” and press OK.
Now others can join the document and edit along with you. They need to press the Join session button. When they do, Gobby displays a list of all the Gobby sessions it discovers on the network. Your fellow collaborators select your session, pick a name to identify themselves, and press OK. A moment later, everyone is able to edit — and chat about — the same document.
Don’t expect super-sophisticated features like you’d see in OpenOffice.org. Gobby is for editing text documents, and plain documents at that. You can set tab widths in your preferences, and Gobby will automatically recognize a bevy of languages and use the appropriate color coding, and that’s about it. So Gobby is great for editing code or writing stories, but not so hot for preparing that big report with graphs and tables and charts. Once you understand Gobby’s purpose, though, you’ll start to think of all sorts of uses for this cool little application.
Even better, the developers are hard at work making Gobby better for the upcoming 0.4 release. New goodies include the ability to set font faces and sizes, clickable URLs, and the biggie: encryption of traffic, which is wonderful.
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can take your interest in Gobby in two compatible directions. First, you don’t have to use Gobby on a LAN. If you know how to punch a hole in your firewall, thereby directing traffic flowing over Gobby’s port to a particular machine on your network, you can use Gobby over the Net. Of course, encryption is a must here, so you should hold off on serious use until 0.4 is out. In the meantime, though, you can practice this process with 0.3 now (search for How To Try Out Gobby at Google for more info).
Second, you can set up a more permanent Gobby server — called, naturally, Sobby — that gives you password protection, auto-save, and web publishing of documents. It’s still very much in development, but it’s a neat idea that could really pay off down the road.
Gobby is still pretty simple, but developers are hard at work, and users are already finding that the program enables collaboration in an easy and powerful way. If you need to work with a distributed team of individuals on a text document, give Gobby a try today.
Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Hacking Knoppix, is in stores now. You can reach him at