The Last Bit: Our Small Study of Collaborative Writing Apps/Tools

Granted, it was a small study, actually. And, to be fair, we decided not to include Google Docs. That’s because, when we read their privacy policy at…

we just felt it was a little too easy for them to learn a little too much about some of the sensitive information some of us might be creating in these docs. So we focused on apps like Etherpad and Ethercalc. Learn more about them at…


These are web document apps and web spreadsheets that you or your I.T. partner can install on your own server. The idea behind these kinds of tools is that a) multiple people can view and even edit a document and/or spreadsheet simultaneously. In a sidebar, these viewers and editors can talk about the content, making comments, “at” mentions, etc. And with these two options (Etherpad and Ethercalc), all the information is completely private — because you own the servers. This seems like the best option for those with sensitive information (like — ideas related to people serving unreached peoples in places some might misunderstand). In the case of these apps, you host them on your own servers — and the app software is free, so these services, if you can stage them, are not only secure, but in addition, they are essentially free. And they do pretty much what Google Docs and Google Sheets do. We found in using Etherpad and Ethercalc that they perform pretty much as promised. Yes, it’s possible to cross wires with someone while editing, so we should always back up our work. (But we should always back up all our work anyway, right?) There are occasional error codes when opening documents. This might cause some to lose a bit of confidence in the apps, but after trying these apps for many weeks, we only experienced one occasion in which we actually lost data (that we hadn’t backed up yet in the same day we lost it).

But if you don’t have an I.T. professional and you’re not sure how to install such things on servers, or if you want even more confidence in your data, you’ll need to pay someone for these collaborative tools. Why? Because by paying a small fee, you no longer have to use Google’s services, which are ad-supported (but free to you) and you get professional help and guidance.

One of these options is a fairly new Dropbox product called Dropbox Paper. Learn more at…

If you already use Dropbox, this might be a good option for you. But it doesn’t seem to provide you with the opportunity to do spreadsheets. But at least by paying a small fee to Dropbox, it seems you now own the material. They aren’t trolling you for potential marketing information.

If, however you want additional features like spreadsheets, the best example we could find for these purposes might be Quip, which was recently purchased by Salesforce.

Actually, this implementation is a bit cooler anyway. It goes beyond Etherpad and Ethercalc by merging both functions together (words and spreadsheets can appear in the same doc), and by creating the coolest implementations ever for mobile devices (like your phone and tablet). Neither Etherpad nor Ethercalc have mobile apps — and none are in sight. You’ll pay a monthly fee for Quip (like $30/month for 5 users), but you will own the content. Quip’s privacy policy doesn’t read the same as Google’s, naturally, in that they’re not trolling your data for content through which they can market you.

Do you know of other collaborative document platforms/tools for teams that permit multiple people to edit/view the same word processing document at the same time?? If you’ve got a favorite, please tell us by clicking “Comment” following the web version of this item. And thanks, in advance, for your input!

5 Responses to The Last Bit: Our Small Study of Collaborative Writing Apps/Tools
  1. Bob Reply

    Apple’s productivity apps (Pages for WP, Numbers for spreadsheets, Keynote for presentations) offer collaboration capabilities. And, one doesn’t have to use an Apple product (Mac, iPad, or iPhone) to take advantage of these products as anyone can set up an iCloud account ( and use the online apps free. See here — (Disclaimer: While I do own a very few shares of Apple stock and, therefore, benefit every so slightly from any improvement in Apple’s business, I don’t get any direct benefit from ‘pushing’ Apple products — I just use and like them.)

  2. Brian James Reply

    Thanks for sharing that, Bob. As one who primarily uses Windows and Android (though I also have an iPad), I was not aware of this feature in iCloud.

    I was also going to mention that Microsoft offers something similar in Office 365. You need either a free or paid OneDrive account or SharePoint. I’ve used my OneDrive account to share documents with my team and work together, remotely & simultaneously, on PowerPoint presentations and Word docs. I don’t think the collaboration features work as smoothly as Google Docs, but it does work.

  3. Peter Bowers Reply

    I still don’t get why all the love (not!) for Google… Am I missing something in the privacy policy? I honestly don’t care if an automated (!) system targets me with more relevant ads. Where’s the harm? If it were a live person that would be different, but this paragraph everyone seems worried about seems utterly innocuous to me…

    • Brian James Reply

      Peter, if I am not mistaken, there has been at least 1 case where a Google employee compromised a user’s data. Secondly, Google has been known to comply with requests from foreign governments to turn over data from user’s accounts (,accounts,compliance;authority:PK&lu=user_requests_report_period). Third, it’s not just about ads. Google (and Facebook and others) are building extremely thorough profiles on everyone using their services. WE are their product. While it is unlikely that Google will knowingly or willingly compromise what it knows about us, that does not mean that at some point they wouldn’t, either voluntarily or because they are hacked or forced to do so.

      Several years ago, a number of workers were deported suddenly from a country in N. Africa. I never heard if it was verified, but at one point at least it was believed that those deported were identified through data gathering and being found “guilty by association” as a result of what algorithms were able to determine from Facebook.

      Having worked in countries that are hostile to Christians, and where intelligence services have no boundaries, and where there is a high level of technical expertise, efforts to minimalize the gathering of this kind of personal info certainly can seem to be wise.

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