John Donne famously observed around 1624 that "No man is an island, entire of itself." And that was nearly 400 years before anyone began to think of collaborative computing.
Most collaborative efforts have been limited by connectivity to a local-area network, or via a sharing tool such as Novell's Groupware or Lotus Notes. Such solutions required some level of interconnection and a common hardware/software platform.
All that is changing, and perhaps the greatest "change agent" arrived June 2 with Acrobat.com, a project of Adobe Corp. Use of this Web site is free for what the firm says is a basic level of service. The Web site lets you create documents, use a limited set of fonts, designate text in color, add a color background to text, and perform some other enhancements. The system works both online and in a Web browser, and it appears to cross platforms - from Windows to Macintosh - quite nicely.
The fun begins, however, when you click the small "Share" button in the lower left corner of the screen. Once selected, you can let other people, in your office, college class or bridge club, take a look at your document, annotate it with comments, or even edit and change the text.
Suddenly, passing around a file folder with a hard-copy printout seems really, really old.
Collaboration tools, as noted, have existed before, but Acrobat.com, which incorporates the Buzzword (STET) online word processor, offers a rather nice combination of style and usefulness.
Adobe's graphical and imaging sides come through: It's possible to add photographs and other graphical items to a Buzzword document and have the text wrap nicely around these. The finished product can be saved in many formats, including plain text, Microsoft Word and Adobe's PDF style.
If handled with a bit of skill, Buzzword and Acrobat.com are not just collaboration tools, they can become an ad hoc "content management system" for many small offices and work teams. The free service will let you hold online conferences with two other people.
Another nice aspect of Acrobat.com is a way to "embed" a document created with the system in another Web page. If you want, this would allow anyone to see it, although you can put restrictions on such permissions. This moves documents beyond collaboration to online publishing.
The capabilities promised and delivered by Acrobat.com are quite substantial for something that's not only free, for the moment, but will always have a free level of service, Adobe product manager Mark Grilli said in a phone briefing. While the firm hopes to "monetize" such generosity with sales of higher-capacity subscriptions, it's nice that there's a way to test the waters at no cost.
The graphical niceness of Acrobat.com puts other online editing tools, such as Google Docs, to shame. It's a system worth trying, if you don't mind falling in love.