Google's Writely remains in limited beta testing. You can sign up on the wait list at writely.com. Once you have access and log in, setup is simple. Just click the New or Upload links to open a separate browser window for writing and editing a file. The document composition layout is elegant and self-explanatory, with tabs and drop-down menus for basic functions along the top. A strip of editing icons lets you save, print, undo, check spelling, insert Web links, change font formatting, and more. Each time you log in, the main Writely beta interface lists your documents and lets you mark them with a star, tag them with a topic, and archive old files to keep them out of sight. Unlike with the Web-based ThinkFree, you can keep more than one file open at the same time.
To migrate content from another source you can either upload HTML, Microsoft Word, and image files; cut and paste to a Writely document; or e-mail a file to your Writely account. You can save Writely-created documents to a hard drive as HTML, RTF, Word, OpenOffice, and PDF files or as RSS feeds. And while Writely beta still lists PDF publishing as a paid premium feature, this option is now free. You can also create an RSS feed of a document and select settings to keep that feed private or open its contents to the public or to choice individuals.
Writely includes quick menu items for adding a Web link, a table, or an editing comment without confusing you with excessive formatting choices. Writely offers only 18 fonts, a drop in the bucket against Word and WordPerfect, but you do get special characters for adding accented letters for non-English, Roman-alphabet languages. On the other hand, the free online word processor ZohoWriter beta offers 12 fonts. Writely also lets you preview files before you print or post them to the Web. You can use this service to make a blog post, without leaving the page, to accounts at Google's Blogger, as well as to MetaWeblog, Movable Type, BlogHarbor, LiveJournal, Squarespace, and Blogware. Or if you're crafting a novel in Writely, its Bookmarks function allows you to mark the start of each chapter so that you can instantly jump to it without scrolling through dozens of pages. However, we still prefer Corel WordPerfect X3 for writing a tome.
Writely beta's simplicity is a strong draw for us. It didn't irritate us by anticipating our next move as Microsoft Word 2003 does. For example, Writely didn't interpret a desired layout by applying a formatting library to our document. Nor are there hard-to-tweak elements, such as Word's intractable text boxes, or hidden dialog boxes to discover.
The major downside: There's no desktop version of Writely as there is with ThinkFree, so if you get knocked offline you'll have to open those files in another program. If you can't afford a desktop word processor, we recommend the popular, free OpenOffice Writer. But if you depend upon a graphics-intensive office-productivity suite that can integrate charts and graphs from spreadsheets, as well as slides and infographics from a tool such as PowerPoint, then we suggest that you check out the changes due for Microsoft Office 2007 beta 2, a download that you can test-drive for free until the final, pricey product arrives early next year.