Sparrow Web, webOutliner and Web of Ideas

I’m doing some research into an Ideas Database web application, prompted by my recent Web of Ideas post (and its sequel). I have a Movable Type sandbox blog set up as a base for development. I’m planning on using XTM (XML Topic Maps) and/or ENT (Easy News Topics) as the engine for ideas, with MT as the frontend and perhaps MySQL as the database. My “Web of Ideas” application will be focussed on weblogs and all the ideas swirling around in the blogosphere. It probably won’t be a super-duper web application, but if nothing else I’ll have fun learning by doing 🙂

In my research I’ve come across a couple of interesting products. One is called Sparrow Web and it was developed by Xerox Parc in the 90’s. Yes the same Xerox Parc who are famous for many PC innovations. I first read about this product over a year ago, when Fast Company published an article about an application on Google’s Intranet which uses it:

“Google’s idea search starts with an internal Web page that takes minutes to set up. Using a program called Sparrow, even Google employees without Internet savvy (there are a few) can create a page of ideas.”

Sparrow Web is very similar to a Wiki. Both are collaborative web editing environments. Contributers use the browser as their authoring tool, so no authoring software needs to be installed and HTML knowledge isn’t required. In both Sparrow and Wiki, web content is owned by a group of people. Sparrow calls this “community-shared web pages” and it is like a web authoring democracy.

The main point of difference between Sparrow Web and Wiki is that Sparrow allows editing of specific parts of a webpage, whereas in a Wiki you edit the whole page. As noted in a presentation at the 1998 WWW Conference:

“A Sparrow editing experience is intended to seem like interacting with a traditional “desktop” application (albeit more slowly), in which the user directly manipulates parts of documents which maintain their context from moment to moment. In contrast, most web applications are page-oriented, so that each interaction yields a new page with new information or new controls.”

This sounds a lot like the Microcontent concept. Content is divided into chunks, or modules, of information. But Sparrow doesn’t go as far as having a separate URL for each item of content (it was developed in the 90’s remember). Each item is created using a form and CGI scripting to update the webpage.

Another feature of Sparrow Web is that it uses an Outliner User Interface. In particular the “disclosure triangle”, with the open/close functionality that is such a familiar part of outlining software. The disclosure triangle in Sparrow indicates editability – i.e. click on it to open the editing form. 

Which brings me to a web application called webOutliner, being developed by a group of people including Doug Baron, Marc Barrot and Marc Canter. The goals of webOutliner are as follows:

“- as a creation tool, we can select content at the paragraph (or node) level, and organize it as we think;
– as a publication tool, we can create immediately accessible hierarchies, revealing more content on demand.”

As with Sparrow, content authoring and editing is done at the microcontent level. In the case of webOutliner, chunks of information are attached to an outline node. So when it comes to reading or browsing the content, it is in a hierarchical order. For instance you could create a Yahoo-like directory of information using webOutliner.

The ability to edit at the microcontent level while at the same time order the results into a hierarchy, is a powerful concept. It is one I will try to develop in my humble Web of Ideas application. I’ll also watch with interest as the real pros continue to develop webOutliner. Oh and I wonder if Sparrow is still being worked on? I’d love to see the Google application that runs on Sparrow Web.

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