As I write this in Writely, the new web-based word processor build with AJAX technology, I’m amazed that it works at all. I’m using what seems to be a complete word processing application and document sharing environment — without installing anything. All I need is a browser — I have to use FireFox rather than Safari on my Mac, but this is a temporary problem, according to the Writely folks. Another minor annoyance is that it works only if you disable pop-up blocking. But these are minor issues for me.
I need a word processor that checks spelling, lets me add links easily, and lets me post the result as a blog entry, or as part of a web page, while saving it in a standard format that’s easy to use with other applications. Simple, right? There are plenty of small-footprint text editors that can do this job as long as you know how to put in your own HTML codes. I wanted something a bit more elegant but not too much more. I use NeoOffice (a variant of OpenOffice.org) on my Mac, so I can create wondrously formatted printed pages and PDFs, but it’s overkill for composing blog posts and web content.
Writely lets me compose elegantly, adding links, checking spelling, and doing minimal formatting such as bulleted lists, indented blocks of text, and alignment. If offers the same fonts you find often on web pages, with bold, italics, underlining, strikeout, superscript, and subscript. I can insert images, tables, and bookmarks to places within the document. Writely feels more like a web page tool because it offers the ability to view the HTML source code of the document and to preview the document as a web page.
I can then save the document as in Word or OpenOffice.org formats, include it in a blog and RSS feed, email it to collaborators who can edit the document, and so on. Writely lets you upload your Word or OpenOffice.org documents as well as HTML or text documents. You can view a document’s complete revision history and roll back to any version.
I haven’t tried the blog and collaboration features yet. Writely lets you “publish” (provide view-only access to) a document, which can be viewed by anyone who knows its address (the site can notify others by email and send a unique password). You can also send documents to others who can edit the document and publish it in a blog. You can change these access options at any time for any document.
Writely supports posting to most of the popular blog sites, as well as to any blog that supports the Blogger, metaWeblog or MovableType APIs. You can organize your Writely documents by adding tags, then use the tags to search. You can add as many tags as you like to a document, creating a system of organization just like a blog that supports tags.
Many of you may be thinking at this point: why would you want a third party involved in storing your documents? You may be uncomfortable with this idea. The site says that your private documents remain private. At this point I’m using the service to compose and edit documents, and I plan on using it to collaborate on documents… but I’m still saving the resulting documents locally, on my hard drive, and publishing them on my own hosted blog. I’m not ready to use Writely as a full-blown document management system, though I can see how it would be excellent for this purpose.
The problems I’ve seen with Writely so far are related to selecting text, copying and pasting, and other activities that are chiefly problems with the browser itself. I used FireFox on a Mac and found no problems to report (yet). While I could save the document as a Word doc with no problems (and open it up in Word, OpenOffice.org, or NeoOffice/J), I couldn’t open the document saved in the OpenOffice.org ODT format in NeoOffice/J (and I don’t know why, yet).
However, Writely was very easy to use, and the HTML view is useful — after switching to HTML view, I used copy-paste to paste it into my blog posting tool without having to save the file anywhere else; I also copied and pasted it into an HTML document on my hard drive. After doing that, any application that supports HTML can open and edit it.
At this point, Writely is free. The company says it will offer basic service for free, with extras requiring a subscription fee. The company will also be charging license fees to corporations, partners, and for custom installations. My hope is that the service as it stands now (it is in “beta period” according to the company) will be free. Watch this space for updates, as I’ll be using Writely regularly.