The no-office diet
Can a modern computer user survive without an office suite, especially a user accustomed to using traditional, installed software? I've used Microsoft Word on every computer I've worked on since 1987. I know Word inside and out, and I have a library of Word files going back 19 years. But now, with the rise of AJAX and Web 2.0 technologies, and with more and more companies writing applications that are delivered directly over the Web, I'm wondering: Do I really need Word?
So I'm trying an experiment. I am writing this column on Writely, a free word processor that runs completely in a Web browser. Writely is not the only online word processor, but it's one of the most well known, and it was just acquired by Google. Google has closed new user registration for Writely while it is figuring out how to scale up the servers to handle Google-level traffic, but all existing users have 50 invitations they can give out. For a nice collection of other Web 2.0 applications, with reviews, see this page on IT|Redux. If you want to get started with an online word processor right away, Zoho Writer is worth experimenting with.
Diving in to Writely
First impressions: Wow. The last time I used browser-delivered productivity software (I think it was a spreadsheet), it was a painful experience. But this word processor makes a mockery of those previous apps. It's fast and easy to use, and enough of its key commands are identical to Word that my training time with this product is essentially zero. Also, my big fear--that I'll hit the Back button and lose my work--is gracefully handled. Writely captures events that would cause you to lose data and pops up a window giving you the chance to save your work.
Second impressions: The differences begin to surface. Minor key commands that I'm used to don't work. For example, my automatic reflex is to save a file every time I pause in thought, with the Alt+F+S command. But in Writely, that pulls up the browser's file menu, not Writely's (the Writely key command is Ctrl-S). Other little crutches that I've gotten used to in Word are missing: the autocorrect function that corrects minor misspellings or capitalization errors is not there, so I need to write more carefully. And the multi-item clipboard isn't there.
Word, of course, has hundreds of other features, and most people use only a few of them, which means that you won't miss most of the features that Word has and Writely doesn't, but there will likely be one or two that slow you down. For me, I miss the function that sorts lists of text items. On the other hand, the table creation tool in Writely is quite good. Furthermore, Google can add functions and features to Writely when it wants, and all users will immediately benefit. Nobody has to deal with installing updates or patches except Google itself.
But comparing Word to Writely strictly on features and user interface misses the point. After all, for the foreseeable future, you're probably not going to use a computer without a productivity suite. So why bother with a purely online word processor at all?
It's better online
An online application can do some things that Word cannot, at least not easily. First, the Writely program has very strong collaboration features. Multiple people can actually edit the same document at the same time, so you can literally keep a whole team of people on the same page. You can also roll back a document to a previous point in time, and you can see who made which revisions. This feature is similar to Word's revision tracking function but I found it simpler and easier to work with.
And since Writely is an online application, it stores your files online. Whenever you log on to Writely, from any computer, all your files appear. You don't have to worry about which computer you stored them on. For people who use multiple computers, this is very useful, and this is one of the key differentiators between an offline word processor and an online one: online applications are self-contained and portable; they can run on any computer, and your files are always there. You can save your files to local computers, too, if you want.
Writely has strong online publishing tools. Any document can be published as a Web page visible to everybody or just to people you select. Posting a Writely file to a supported blog (Blogger, BlogHarbor, BlogWare, LiveJournal, or SquareSpace) takes two clicks. If you're technically minded, you can also set up a customized connection to a blog site you host. Unfortunately, I got error messages and was unsuccessful at posting to my Blogger account, and I found no easy way to post from Writely to a TypePad blog (competitor Zoho Writer does post to TypePad blogs, but I had problems getting that system to correctly post images).
Not for the print/offline generation
Writely can't be used when you're offline, so if you want to start a long report in Writely and finish it on a plane ride, you'll need to export your file to Word or another word processor to open it on your laptop. If you have an unreliable Internet connection, it's definitely not for you. Fortunately, Writely's export function is quick and reliable. There's also a good import function for editing existing Word documents in Writely. If your document uses advanced features, they may not come through with 100 percent fidelity, but Writely makes smart decisions about most formatting. For example, it converts footnotes to within-document hyperlinks.
Writely's printing function is feature poor. The product will print your documents, but if you more need than basic control over page formatting, use something else.
Who's it for?
Compared to Word, there is a fair bit that Writely cannot do. But as I near the end of this column, I've found no strong need for any features the application doesn't have. It's been easy to work on this document from my both my home computer and my work computer, since I didn't have to worry about where the file was, and I even asked my editor to check out the file online instead of dealing with the normal cycle of e-mailing it or putting it on a shared drive for her to access. For the work I do, writing this column online has actually been a faster and easier experience than using Word.
Would you use an online application like Writely?
In other words, I am sold. I'm so sold, in fact, that I'm eagerly looking forward to the day when online services companies, such as Google (which now owns Writely), release their own online suites. In the meantime, I'm going to start taking a very close look at complete online suites, such as the Zoho applications, gOffice, and ThinkFree.
Online productivity applications like Writely cannot completely replace stand-alone software programs such as Word. Sometimes you need local and offline access to files, and you may also have complex documents that take fuller advantage of the rich and complex Word feature set than short documents or those intended for an online audience. But for creating and editing documents that are intended primarily to be read online, it makes a lot of sense to use a word processor that is native to the online medium.