Google's Writely: An Inside Look3/12/2006 10:10:00 PM
Google's acquisition of Writely has been widely speculated to be its sharpest bite yet at the Microsoft Office suite. With signups closed until Google re-releases the app, it will be awhile before most people can test the program's functionality. To get your mouths watering, here's a rundown of Writely's features and performance (with some appropriate comparisons to Microsoft Word and a few speculations on where Google is going with this).
Click for a full-size screenshot of my document in the Writely interface.
Writely is a powerful editor for online documents. I say online documents because Writely is primarily for documents that will be created, edited, presented, and shared via the web. Microsoft Word, on the other hand was designed for print materials (think measurement toolbars, header/footer layouts, paper size controls, label/envelope support, etc). Writers who create printable materials like pamphlets, college essays, and and portfolios will still require the advanced print editing features in software like Word. But webby types will enjoy the simplified, web-ready documents that can be created, shared, and filed in an instant. In sum, Writely takes some hints from Microsoft Word, subtracts some of its advanced print features, and then adds some exciting web capabilities to inhabit its new niche in word processing.
In Writely, you can export your document to the following formats: HTML, Rich Text Format, Word doc, OpenOffice doc, PDF, and posts in supported blog clients. Below are links to Writely's exports of my test document in some of these formats (all open in a new window).
HTML (on Writely's server)
I gave Writely a rather detailed layout to work with, and I am impressed with the way it was able to port these styles to the various document types. The line spacing and other typographic elements are off (stressing again that Writely is not for designing print documents), but legibility is retained across platforms.
When creating a document, you can instantly add collaborators.
You then type directly into the Writely interface to create your document. Traditional text styling features like bold, italics, underline, sub/superscripts, text colors, highlights, left/right/center/justify, and ordered and unordered lists are all available. You can also insert tables, drag and drop images, and cut and paste text from other documents.
Here are screenshots of the expanded toolbar menu items:
Export/save/copy/or subscribe to RSS. A functional and powerful file menu.
The future is tagging...tagging everything. Writely's document tags are user created and accessible only to the users that create them--e.g. you won't see tags for "motorcycles" or "avocado growth report" if you haven't created them.
The table insertion tool is HTML-based rather than "document-based" as in MS Word. You get to specify rows/cols but also padding and cell spacing. Writely's link insertion lets you add links to other Writely documents, URL's, email addresses, and bookmarks.
Bookmarks are Writely's name for HTML's page anchors. You can insert bookmarks at any point in the document and then create links to those anchors via the hyperlink tool. Easy referencing within the same document, done web-style.
You can apply text classes like HTML's H1, H2, H3, block quote styles or erase formatting altogether. Line-spacing works well but is only applicable to the document as a whole rather than highlighted sections of a document.
The pre-selected fonts are for the most part websafe, familiar, and easy to read onscreen. It just sucks that Writely even bothers to provide Comic Sans.
No customized 100 pt headings here. Writely chose font sizes that work with the web.
Basically, Writely gives you control over most text styling elements that you would use when creating a classy HTML doc, except for link colors, page or div background colors, complicated mouseover effects (tooltips are editable though), and direct insertion of video or other non-image file types.
Spell check and an editable dictionary are included as well: Writely uses Word's squiggly red lines to indicate mistakes. No sign of grammar help, though.
And for those who must be brief, Writely also provides the standard word count.
Writely is still working on advanced features (like find and replace) and I expect more tools on par with Word's functionality to crop up over time.
Writely's most surprising bonus features are its support of tagging for documents and storage and prioritizing similar to the Gmail system. Each document can receive single or multiple user-created tags. When sifting through Writely files, you can view active documents, starred documents, documents pertaining to a single tag, and all documents at once. You can then copy/edit/delete/re-tag from there. Last edited dates are also given for each document. The interface is intuitive and responds instantly to your changes.
In addition to saving your document to various formats, you can choose to make documents public, private, or shareable amongst invited email addresses.
Users whom you invite will have access to that specific document as well as to their own Writely interface for creating new documents. Commenting is provided (see my test document) to identify changes and to track suggestions between users. (Comments are lost, however, if you export the doc to Word format.) You can also view a document's revision history in a list of its saved versions, making it easy to revert to previous versions.
Finally, Writely lets you track changes to documents via associated RSS feeds (with some warnings about privacy of course). While it seems an obvious step for those accustomed to using RSS feeds, it's an astonishly new concept in the creation of documents which are seldom seen as "evolving" but rather seen as being in draft mode until they are saved /printed in final, fixed copy. When our feedreaders are full of document change feeds that require our constant monitoring, we'll hate this feature, but for now it's innovative.
Don't forget that Writely lets you upload files, including Word docs for editing within the Writely interface. After uploading a few folders of Word docs, you have instant access to all of your work online in an interface that both supports Word and exports (most of) your changes back into that format for office printing.
While it may seem to have fewer features than Word, Writely does allow you to access documents from anywhere. This is a natural extension of web-based content creators like MT and WordPress which have made us accustomed to composing and publishing strictly on the web. Certainly this is also the future of workplace document creation and accessibility as well.
What Writely Is Not:
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.
Where Google's Writely is Going:
The major hypothesis is that Writely will be the MS Word of Google's predicted office suite. While this is surfactorily correct (in all likelihood), it ignores the fact that Google is probably not trying to create the next great word processor. Google is more probably trying to create the next great text engine that we haven't yet seen: a fully featured, strongly robust, always portable, platform-independent way of creating documents. We're talking reports that are written entirely online, edited seamlessly by multiple authors, saved securely on failsafe servers (GDrive anyone?), viewable on all machines, and instantly integrative with websites and email. (Connecting the Writely product to Gmail, Calendar, Google Groups, the hoped for GDrive, etc. is most certainly a long term goal for the project.) In sum, we shouldn't be too quick to call Google's Writely the next MS Word. It should be recognized for what it is, a new kind of document creation.
Lesser discussed is Writely's potential effect on Blogger (and Google Pages). I wrote recently on things that Blogger can do to get back in the game, and integration with Writely would be a quick way for Google to assess those shortcomings. Writely already supports posting to Blogger, Google has already released an MS Word extension for posting from Word to Blogger, so why not stronger, more streamlined integration between the eventual Writely project and Blogger? We just may see it.
As for "monetizing" the Google office suite, Writely provides no immediate answers. The service is currently free though it could eventually charge monthly/annual access/storage fees (not Google's style though). Google's tried and true advertising revenue model probably would not fit well here just as it does not with Blogger. Users won't want ads slapped at the top of their content and they probably will not be seeing ads in a document-creation interface. That doesn't mean users can't opt-in and put Google ads on their Writely documents if they wish. That is, after all, exactly the way that Blogger blogs are voluntarily monetized and that some books on Google's Book Search are monetized. How Google gets its money back with Writely (and I have no doubt it will, cleverly and many times over), we'll just have to wait and see.