You may have noticed that a week or so ago, Google announced yet another purchase - that of online word processor Writely. Then it promptly closed the service to new users, which was a bit of a disappointment if you wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.
Luckily for me, I had an existing Writely account, which means I could still log in and enjoy the service. So here’s a guided tour (biased somewhat in favor of Mac users because, well, that’s what I use).
The first thing to say is that I’m really not sure if Writely works in Safari. A post on the Writely forums suggests you log in at http://www.writely.com/BasePage.aspx?&browserok=true, but when I tried that it redirected me to http://www2.writely.com/info/WritelyOverflowWelcome.htm; the word “Overflow” in that URL suggests something, but I’m not sure what. If anyone reading this has any further light to shed on this, please let us all know in the comments.
Confusion notwithstanding, I have found that Writely works completely fine in Camino, so if you haven’t downloaded a copy of that fine, free Mac browser yet, this is an excellent excuse to do so. When Writely is open to new sign-ups once more, you’ll be able to log in right away and see how great it is.
Well, it really does what it claims to: offers you a web-based word processing environment. But there are so many fantastic features.
Having logged in, you’re shown a list of your current, or active documents. Each document can have tags (like Gmail’s labels) and there’s also a Gmail-like ’star’ system for highlighting important stuff. Click on any document title and it opens in a new window, meaning you can work on more than one document at a time.
The UI is basic and will look familiar to anyone who has used almost any word processor released for 10 years or more. There are simple, obvious icons that cover most basic aspects of text formatting and layout. And although this is all happening inside a humble Camino window, it’s as WYSIWYG as you could want it to be. Mess around with fonts, sizes, colors, styles, even add pictures (up to 2MB in size - each), and Writely copes with it all effortlessly.
There’s an auto-save feature, so you don’t have to worry about dropping connections. Also included are a word count, versioning, collaboration with invited co-writers, and built-in weblog updating that works with most of the popular blog engines (including Blogger, MT and Wordpress). You can import documents by uploading through a form, or just by emailing them to a customized email address at Writely.com.
And there’s more. Save as PDF, Word, OpenOffice, RTF and HTML (or save directly to the web, as a Writely-hosted public web page, or straight to your weblog); Writely even supports the OpenDocument Format.
What impresses me about Writely is the simplicity of the interface. I feel like I could send the URL to pretty much anyone I knew, geek or not, and they’d be able to understand it in just a few minutes.
And another thing: as someone who has spent a lot of time using a lot of different editors and word processors over the years, I have opinions about what I call “snappiness”. This is a hard-to-explain measure of how well any particular editor can keep up with the speed of my typing; in my experience, BBEdit has the most snappy snappiness of any application I’ve found. Writely, though, used through Camino, comes a very close and very impressive second. It’s that good.
For the time being - until it escapes beta - Writely is free. Its makers say that there will always be a free service, but once out of beta you’ll be able to pay a fee for extra features. These are marked in the existing interface with a little dollar sign, and right now I can only find one (”Save as PDF”). To make Writely Pro (or whatever they call it) more attractive, they will no doubt have to introduce a lot more features. That in itself is amazing - if the free service includes everything that’s on offer now (minus the PDF thing), it will be superb value. I can’t even begin to guess what additional extras they will come up with for paying users.
“If it’s as good as that, Giles, why aren’t you using it all the time?” I hear you ask.
Perhaps because I’m insanely paranoid. I’d love to use Writely for quite a lot of my work, but I worry about things like:
- What if Google starts slapping adverts on every Writely page? (They might be tolerable on the inbox view, but certainly not while editing.)
- What if I need to get some urgent piece of work finished, and Writely is offline (or “having a massage”, as they say chez Flickr).
It might sound like excessive paranoia to some, but I don’t want to use Writely as my primary editing environment for the same reason I don’t want to use Gmail as my email client - as much as I’d like to, I find it hard to put all my trust in them.
Nonetheless, Writely is great as a means of writing away from home or office, while using someone else’s computer, or just when a browser is easier to reach than a decent editor. Write on.