Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Writely: Word Processing on the Web


I'm not exactly sure how it started, but we got into a bit of a discussion at work today. On the one side you had the naysayer, who said that podcasts weren't practice, too expensive to host, and that streaming was the way to go. On the other side we pointed to Liberated Syndication who will host your podcast for $10 without regard for the amount of bandwidth you use. They we started explaining how some companies were working on making office tools available through your web browser without any software installation. The naysayer scoffed, pointing to security concerns, and discussed slowness.

This is where Writely fit in to the discussion.

What is Writely

Writely is an online word processor with a pretty nice feature set. It took about one minute to sign up for my free account, and I was off typing. It is currently in beta, but looks very complete and works well. It has the usual features that you would need for your typical editing session; font style, paragraph style, highlighting, links, bullets, undo/redo, insert image, justification, indentation, and spell checking. This by itself is a pretty
good start.

Advanced Features

There are lots of little features, but I want to specifically talk about some of the features that jumped out at me as being very powerful.

Download as MS Word or PDF

You can download your document as one of the following formats: MS Word, RTF, Zip, Open Office, or as a PDF. The PDF option is indicated as a pay option, but it seems to be currently enabled for free. I assume that this will be one of those features they will use to pay for their hard work. We tried exporting as Word and PDF, and both looked good.

Auto-Save Feature

I am not too sure how often it does this, but every once in a while you will see a red message appear in the status area indicating that the document is being saved. This means that you can keep typing knowing that your work is being automatically saved for you. It seems to do this perhaps every 30 seconds.


This is an awesome feature, and is something that you won't find in your current word processor. Writely allows multiple people to edit a document AT THE SAME TIME! Two of us work were working on the same document, typing at the same time, on the same page of the document. When the auto-save feature pushed our changes to the server it would come back and display the changes that the other person had made. It is essentially an almost real-time document merge that requires no interaction from the user. In cases where a section is deleted while someone else is still working on it, it will warn the user that changes will be lost, and gives them a way to reapply their work.

Change Control

It will show you the recent deletions and inserts into a document, display a list of revisions, and even lets you compare revisions. In the case of a collaborative document it will also show you who edited a change by highlighting it with a different color for each user.

Document Upload/Email

You are allowed to upload or email (a very cool feature) a document into the system as long as it is under 500K. In one test we used a Word document that just hit the 500K mark, and had a good amount of formatting. The result wasn't abysmal, but it didn't exactly look like the original. The text was in tact, but special Word features, like the table of contents lost some of it's formatting. On a second try I uploaded a document, in which I had an embedded Excel sheet (which I had forgotten about). The Excel sheet was converted to an image, and again there was some lost formatting. Tables especially take a bit of a hit with regard to formatting, but they will still be intact.

Blog Integration

If you blog, and you don't like the interface provided by your blog provider, then you may want to investigate this tool. In fact I am using Writely to write this entry. Writely supports quite a few blog API's, including Blogger's, and can post directly to Blogger. It also lets you easily edit and repost entries to your blog. It does though only support a single blog target, so if you post to more than one it will not be quite so easy.

Other Features

There are more, many more. Right-click context menus, copy/paste, edit HTML, publish as an HTML page, tags, bookmarks, images, tables, etc. Lots of good stuff here, more than I want to cover.

The Verdict?

This is the hard part. It is easy to use, tons of features, but... it isn't MS Word. It doesn't let me organize my documents, it just shows them as a list. It doesn't integrate with any collaboration tools. The import destroys the formatting of the original, making it difficult to edit documents created outside of Writely.

In my opinion, unless you are using Writely strictly for blogging, are using it for collaboration between a static set of users, or know that only you will ever edit the document, then I fear that Writely falls slightly short of the mark.

On the other hand, Writely is a great solution if it fits of your needs.

That being said, I think I am going to stick with Writely for my blog, but for business I need to stick with MS Word (for now).


Writely is doing a great job, and because of their work I expect that somewhere down the road I will use web-based tools for most of my document editing needs. Of course Writely isn't the only solution out there, but right now the buzz is with them. I also think that web-based tools will never fill all of the needs of users, and that the local word processor won't be replaced by tools like Writely.


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