Katie on Rails

On Internets and other things

Towing Mozilla

Before learning of Mozilla TowTruck in class today, my experience of real time online collaboration tools had been limited to spreadsheets on Google Drive. And even that emerged recently enough that I could quickly resurrect gchats with remarks like “OMG! I CAN SEE YOU HIGHLIGHTING THAT ROW ON THE SPREADSHEET!” Working in real time on anything, at all, is still relatively new.

And now, says Mozilla Labs, it is much improved. They’ve released TowTruck, a collaboration tool that enables you to watch as another user’s key and mouse strokes on a web page in the same color-coded, user-labelled ways that Google lets you follow another user’s changes to a spreadsheet on Drive. . It was originally intended as an aid for budding web developers, which lead to its name – “TowTruck – who you call when you got stuck” . It can be installed by adding a two lines of JavaScript to a page in production, and gives users the option of communicating by text, audio chat, or video. Or at least that is the idea. I was ready to jump on the TowTruck bandwagon until I noticed that the main example links on its web site lead to 404s. Newly skeptical, I decided to scour the Internet in search of more insight.

The Results

In a nutshell, the online verdict is TowTruck looks promising, but is far from perfect. Mozilla says the system should still be considered “alpha quality” and not yet ready to be used in serious production. This excellent review that said TowTruck was indeed surprisingly easy to use. It’s easy to install, to invite collaborators, and audio quality was generally good. The text chat does indeed work across browsers and operating systems, but the audio chat between two computers gets wonky when neither computer is using Firefox. It’s presently only possible to use between two computers, and hasn’t really been tested on mobile.

The project is open source, so theoretically anyone could improve it at any time. TowTruck is similar to Google Drive because it borrows from Google Drive , which made its Real Time collaboration technology open source.

The company promises more mobile support in 2013. It’s not quite “there” yet, but if it continues to develop, this tool could be a big part of our lives, soon.