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Writely: A Great Concept, Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

April 12th, 2006

A recent acquisition of Google is an online word processing app called “Writely.” I had high expectations for the app, since it is capable of saving documents to your computer in MS Word, RTF, Open Office, or PDF formats. It also allows “collaboration,” meaning that more than one person can view and edit a document in an account. I thought this might be a great tool for the academic writing courses I sometimes teach at my college: students could write their essays online (no more forgetting to bring in their essay, or losing it because a floppy gets corrupted or lost), and then they would not even have to hand it in–I would simply log in and access the file, leave notes and corrections–everything done on line, but with the option of saving to a computer and printing it out there.

I signed up for an account but had heard nothing for some time, when a blogger who follows Google developments closely very kindly offered any readers an invitation, for the asking. I requested one and got it immediately (thanks, Googlist) and checked it out.

And while I still have hope that Writely will eventually become the tool I hoped for, it’s not quite there yet. A lot of features are not yet present or smoothed out enough, much more so than can be accounted for by the app’s beta status. For example, there are no options to set margins or paper size. You cannot set a first-line or hanging indent. The line spacing is sporadic at best, and is sometimes entirely lost on translation to an on-disk document. In short, the formatting is far from what is necessary for producing presentable documents. It is, in the end, limited to what can be presented on a web page with web standards. In this respect, it is a web page editor that can export its documents to a word processor, but it is not a word processor itself.

I attempted to write a document and then save it as an MS Word file. Double spacing got lost entirely. Margins (which can’t be set within Writely) came out as .79″ on the left, and all other margins were .39″–a strange set of defaults to use, and poor-looking at that. Paragraph breaks became line breaks, harder to handle in MS Word.

But Writely can also import documents, so I attempted to take a formatted MS Word file and import it into the web app. The document got pretty badly mangled. Tabs got translated to spaces, a header got distorted and appeared as normal text at the top of page one. Images lost word wrap formatting. Indents remained, but got distorted–first-line indents stayed at a half inch, while hanging indents went from a half to a whole inch.

When the same document was translated back into MS Word on my hard disk, it lost even more formatting. Hanging indents became full left-margin indents. The header reappeared, but jumped from the right to the left side. The margins got distorted into new proportions, with the top margin now 1.05 inches and all the others similar to Writely defaults.

The distortions after uploading to Writely and again downloading to MS Word were strange. Some stayed as MS Word had them, but some got changed to new values even though Writely does not allow you to change them. Any special formatting disappeared.

Clearly, Writely is not really a word processor along the lines of MS Word or any other disk-based app. It is really just a text editor, with web page formatting only. Importing from and exporting to MS Word is not very useful because the distortions make it easier just to copy and paste text from a web page to MS Word and apply formatting changes there. This app won’t work if things like margins and indents mean anything to you. And it’s absolutely not WYSIWYG.

I had expected Writely to come up with coded translations of all formatting at least available in the Rich Text Format; that the app would preserve all such formatting and then translate it into a web page that appeared in WYSIWYG style. I imagined that any change you made on the web page would be interpreted back into RTF, and that saving as RTF or MS Word would produce a clean document. Maybe Writely will become that in the future, but that isn’t what it is right now. Instead, any text document is simply made into a web page, with non-web formatting distorted or lost.

The main values I see currently are the ability to edit anywhere you have Internet access, and Writely’s ability to allow collaboration. You can add a collaborator simply by entering an email address. That person will get an email informing them, and if they are not already signed in to Writely, they will be given an account. They will be able to log on, then view and edit any documents shared with them by others.

Now, I would have known this had I read Googlist’s March review of Writely (that was before I found that blog), in which the new web app is carefully explained, deconstructed, and analyzed. Googlist explained it like this:

Writely is not a fully-featured, traditional desktop publishing program. It does not provide features like those in Word and InDesign that let you create custom paper sizes, apply multi-page layouts, design your own greeting cards, or import custom font families.

Writely is not (yet) a term paper machine. There is no support for automatically updating footnotes, automatically updating tables of contents, or page numbering for that matter. It’s just not that kind of app at this point.

Writely’s strengths are primarily in portability (you can edit a doc from any computer on the Internet) and collaboration. I am hoping that they beef up the formatting so academic essays can be produced, but it doesn’t look like it will get there for some time yet. Nevertheless, this is still a great concept, and I will be keeping my eyes on it over time. The development team has a blog which they post to every several weeks or so.

If you want an invite, I’d be happy to pass along the favor Googlist did for me–just leave an email in a comment; if it’s a straight request with email address, it won’t get published, I’ll just send you an invite.

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  1. ykw
    April 13th, 2006 at 03:37 | #1

    What I don’t understand is microsoft xp ships with something called the .net framework which is a large 30mb set of subroutines that can implement applications like word processors, and this can be accessed from a web browser, yet I have not seen any apps that us it. With java, one can write some fancy apps, yet the client needs a large java subroutine library (e.g. 10mb) on their computer to do it. With java, I haven’t seen any good word processing apps either. Alternatively, one can have a very simple word processor that does not require a big subroutine library (.net or java) on the client computer, yet this needs to follow html and xml like code. Perhaps google, which is big enough, will put together a 10 to 30mb java library that supports a web based office (i.e. word processing, spreadsheet, etc) product. This, in my view, is their next big thing.

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