3 June 2010: Rich text in notes

This has been on the todo list for a long time now so it is good to finally get it delivered. Understandably enough, people sometimes want to write notes using rich text, with bold, different fonts, indentation, bullets and the like. We've always used those effects ourselves just by writing the html tags in the note but that's obviously not everyone's cup of tea.

So, after a brief foray into the world of rich text editors, there seem to be two possible approaches:

  • Trust the browser, set the "contentEditable" property on a page element and just provide buttons and choices to expose what it is capable of.
  • Don't trust the browser and do everything yourself: record the cursor position and key strokes and modify the DOM tree accordingly.

We've spent an interesting couple of months getting to grips with the various ways of collecting and displaying freehand annotations. If all browsers supported the canvas element then life would be rather easy but, sadly, that's not the case. On the bright side, however, the two technologies you need for Internet Explorer, VML and Silverlight, are both interesting in their own right.

VML has been around for many years in the IE family, but it seems not to be used much presumably because other browsers don't support it. Essentially, you just compose a chunk of XML specifying the item to be drawn and insert this text into an element on the page. The XML format is not exactly beautiful, but on the other hand it does have the advantage of being a display oriented rather than a drawing oriented mechanism. You can just modify the entity to be displayed and the browser sorts it out, whereas with a canvas you manage the redraws yourself with low level stroke and fill operations.

Two questions we're often asked are: "What happens if I upload a new version of a document. Do the notes carry over?" and "If I change the document and upload again, can you show what has changed?".

Until now, the answer has had to be: "Sorry. Each upload is treated as an independent document so you can't see the earlier notes or the differences." For many people, this works OK. You get a batch of notes on one version, process all those notes making changes in the document as you go, and then start the next review cycle with a clean new version.

When we first started looking at Moodle two years ago, we thought the main benefit of integrating with A.nnotate would be for online grading so this was the first plugin we developed.

But since then, as universities put more of their course materials online, there has been a lot of interest in getting students to use A.nnotate instead of just staff. The idea is that it is all very well giving students the PDF of their course materials, but that isn't really any substitute for a printed copy they can go through in the lectures and put their own notes on as they work. So if you are to cut down on printed materials (and the corresponding financial and environmental costs) you have to give students a convenient way to work on the screen. And it should let them do as much as, and preferably more than, they could do on paper or they probably won't use it.

Now you can annotate precise points in documents and images with arrows in a range of colors and directions. numerous users have asked for this, particularly for annotating scientific images but it works equally well for PDF pages and images in snapshots.

An image with arrows

Now you can share your notes to twitter. So if you want to share something about a particular part of a website or document, just make an A.nnotate note about it and click the little link icon in the top right of the note. The sharing dialog now looks like this:

The first time you use it, you need to tell it about your twitter account, but you can have it save the details after that so you can share any note on twitter with a couple of clicks!

The new version of A.nnotate is now available! It lets you add notes to highlighted text and image regions on a wide range of document formats (including PDF, MS Word (.doc and .docx), OpenOffice, PowerPoint, spreadsheets, JPG, PNG, GIF images) - as well as snapshots of any web page. Notes and documents are private - but you can share with colleagues by sending a link. Everything runs in the browser with no software or plugins to install.

See the Getting started guide for an introduction to the new features including:

The next version of A.nnotate will be released on 7th Dec 2008. It includes a number of new features to make it easier to collaborate on PDF and Word documents in the browser. We were planning a Sept release, but delayed it to give us time to include various extra features which users were requesting.

The A.nnotate server is now available for installation on your own local machines (e.g. on an intranet, or on your own dedicated web server) - see Standalone A.nnotate servers for details.

When running on your own servers you'll see the same easy-to-use browser based interface familiar from the hosted service on A.nnotate.com but browsing and uploading should be quicker. You can also keep documents securely behind your firewall and you can upload as many documents as your hard disk space will allow.

Just back from Edinburgh Repository Fringe - a gathering of people interested in making research data and publications more useful and easy to access. There were great keynote talks from Dorothea Salo ['the institutional repository is dead'] and David De Roure ['how repositories can avoid failing like the grid'], and lots of "performances" in the spirit of an unconference / BarCamp event.

A common theme seemed to be that setting up a university-wide database and expecting researchers to populate it by filling out forms just doesn't work; but providing easy to use web services for collaboration and improving visibility / citation counts of research is the way to go.

A.nnotate offers a quick and easy way to collaborate on PDF, Word and HTML documents: simply upload a read-only version to A.nnotate.com and let reviewers add their comments to highlighted text in the browser. It is not an online word processor (like Google docs / Zoho writer / Buzzword) however - A.nnotate is focussed on shared annotation of a read-only copy.   This blog entry discusses some of the ways you can use A.nnotate with your current desktop or online word processor.

With A.nnotate, all reviewers (and the authors) can read and reply to each others' comments, and you avoid the chaos which can result if several people edit a document at the same time. This gives the author additional control: in many cases you want other peoples opinions on a document draft but do not want them to change your wording.

12 June 2008: What we're working on

Work is well underway for two major developments in the coming months.

First, the standalone server will be out in July. This is for anyone who wants to run A.nnotate on their own server on their intranet, integrate it with existing systems, or be absolutely sure where your confidential documents are physically located. Beta testing for the install process will begin in a couple of weeks and there will be an announcement here when it's available. Why not subscribe to the RSS feed if you haven' done so already?

The A.nnotate.com site has now been updated. New features for PDF annotation include:

There is now also a simple way to export your notes on a page as plain text; the Tools > Plain notes menu option in the top right of your documents page shows your notes in a new window, where you can copy / paste into other applications.

4 April 2008: A.nnotate launched

Documents have long been the information dead-ends of the web, needing separate plugins and viewers to download and read them. Now A.nnotate.com enhances PDF, Word documents and any web page to allow highlighting text, interactive comments and discussion right in the web browser.

Edinburgh, Scotland, 4th April 2008: Textensor Limited, an Edinburgh University startup company today launched A.nnotate.com, a new service that everyone can use to discuss, review and index their documents online.

2 April 2008: About A.nnotate

A.nnotate is the flagship product of Textensor Limited which was incorporated in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2005. The founders had been working for several years on technologies for information capture, storage and reuse in biosciences. Their vision led them to focus on ease of use and universal availability for the core concepts of annotation and collaboration, and they are proud to be able to make these publicly available in A.nnotate.

Today A.nnotate is used online by thousands of individuals and groups who need to store or share comments on documents, web pages or images. Standalone servers are in use in universities, SMEs, blue chip companies and the public sector. A.nnotate technology is increasingly chosen by developers to add annotation capabilities to their own high-value web applications thanks to its flexible licensing, ease of use, and outstanding technical support.