Google finally releases Writely as an open beta

Google recently opened Writely, their online Ajax word-processor, to the public as an open beta, though in web 2.0 terms, “beta” basically means “final” or “we’ll continue to update and change it randomly”. It has been many months since Google acquired Writely; during that time it was a private beta, open only to a select few and fueling rumours that Google was going do something super with it as part of their growing “online office” services list, which includes things like SpreadSheets, and their Calendar web-app.

While I am impressed by the features offered by Writely (and in general, what’s possibly with technologies like Ajax), it doesn’t offer anything, feature-wise, that would make it a killer of current online word processors, such as Zoho Writer. Don’t get me wrong – Writely does seem like a good web-app, but if it’s going to eat into the market share of its competitors, it’ll probably be because of the Google brand name.


Firstly, a little background. Online word-processors with interactive user interfaces on-par with regular desktop applications would not be possible if it weren’t for things like Ajax, which make updating selective parts of the web page possible, rather than having to reload the entire page for every change. This allows web pages, which were typically “static”, (that is, once they were loaded, they couldn’t do anything else but be read), to be used as interfaces to more complex things like web-based applications.

Google's Writely

Writely is an online word-processor based on these principles. Now, you might ask, “Why would I use Writely when I have MS Word right here?” Well, there are a few reasons: Firstly, it’s free. Secondly, because it works on the web, it’s available anywhere you have access to the Internet, and you can save all of your documents online in your account there, so they’re automatically available where you are as well – no more having to carry your files back and forth or e-mail them to yourself.

Being an online application also allows it to incorporate some features not available on traditional, desktop apps. For example, like Google’s Calendar and SpreadSheets (and most other online office programs), documents can be made public or shared among a list of trusted users. Furthermore, more than one person can be working on, or editing a document, at one time. These features can be very useful for collaboration – no more having to e-mail or IM the person you’re working on a document with, bouncing multiple copies of the same document back and forth! All of these features are designed to use the Internet to its full advantage, to better allow for the flow of information an ideas.


Technical-wise, Writely is very good. Right-clicks open up a custom context menu, replacing the standard browser one with a menu that’s more appropriate for a word-processor. Standard keyboard shortcuts like bold (ctrl-b), italics (ctrl-i), save (ctrl-s), undo (ctrl-z) and redo (ctrl-y), work well, and documents are auto-saved as you type. All of this makes for an experience that’s very close to that of a desktop-application.

The interface is quite plain, and very basic, though it gets the job done. I’m very surprised that Google didn’t change it to make it look more “Google-ish”. Indeed, the product name is still Writely and not something like “Google Writer or “Google Writely”. It isn’t even listed on Google’s services page, or their Labs’ site, as far as I can tell. You still use a separate account to log into Writely, not your Google account, though I suspect this may change very soon. This current lack of integration with other Google services may be an indication that they’re still working on improving it before it goes “primetime”, but it’s somewhat weird. Sometimes, Google fully integrates the companies that they buy (such as what they did for Google Earth), but other times they keep the brand name if it’s popular enough, as was the case with Blogger.

Can it compete?

While the list of features from Writely is impressive – it’s a real example of the neat stuff that can be done on the web today – it’s far from being a unique or “first-time” feature set. Zoho Writer offers many of the same features, and is part of a full online office suite that Google has yet to get out the door. For people who have been using Zoho Writer a lot, there will be little incentive to switch to Writely, save the promise of being part of Google’s huge service and product list.

I think the biggest thing Writely has going for it right now is the fact that it’s backed by Google – and that’s a huge advantage. When Google wants to promote one of its services, it will almost certainly do well – when Google Video was linked off of the main Google home page (a move designed put the pressure on YouTube), traffic jumped almost immediately. Now, I’m not saying Writely will gain that sort of sway just yet, but the very fact that it carries the Google title means it will generate more buzz than a similar products. Reading the topic and comments over at TechCrunch, (who are normally less than enthusiastic about Google products), you get the idea that many people are insanely excited about Writely, and it being “another good Google service”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I think Google has a lot of good services – Google Maps and Gmail come to mind, but not everything they release can possible be the best in its class. However, I do think it’s good that they’re active in all areas, as it indicates they’re keen of what’s going on around them.

The question remains

Even with all this talk about features and “web 2.0” and the like, one big question remains – are there enough users to support having services like Writely? While I like the application and could probable be persuaded to use it for a few things, there are issues remaining that prevent wide adoption. Firstly, no one’s going to want to use this to store private and sensitive documents and information. While there’s a reasonable guarantee of security on your account, storing something online on a server is inherently less secure than physically storing it on your own computer. Furthermore, since you’re storing it online, all data is sent over the Internet, further complicating security.

But, perhaps more importantly, is convincing users why to switch. Currently, I don’t think there’s much incentive to. Despite the aforementioned features of online collaboration, that by itself is not enough to sway most people, especially in the corporate environment where the majority has standardized around Microsoft Office, and are reluctant to update to even a new version of MS Office, for fear of the new interface causing user problems. Most people don’t use web-applications beyond webmail, and would probably find something like an online word-processor confusing. Furthermore, online word processors still don’t have all the features that desktop ones do, so for some work, an online word-processor just not going to cut it.

Mixed Emotions

I have mixed feelings towards Writely, and online applications in general. Some, I believe, are very useful (such as webmail), and I simply couldn’t do without them. Others, while being very technically spiffy and cool, have limited functionality in the real-world, it seems. I don’t want to seem like pessimist, as even if a web-app doesn’t have practical value right now, it does its part by showing was is possible, and improving the technology so that something that does have practical value can be developed later on. I give props to the people behind Writely, as they’ve done a great job. I’ll be checking up on it periodically to see what’s being added or changed.

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