Update: Writely was acquired by Google, Inc. – Congratulations to the whole team!   I was told at a conference that this article helped seal the deal – so glad if I was able to help!

The other day I opened Microsoft Word to adjust a document and had a “doh!” moment.  I went to the recent documents menu and scanned the files.  It then struck me… I’d not been using Word much in the last two weeks.  I’d been using Writely, a terrific new online word processor that is serving as the poster child for the movement to web-based Office products.

Think of Writely (www.writely.com) as an program, not a website.  When you’re using it, you forget quickly that it’s web-based – you just use it like Word or Wordperfect.  You can import and export Word, OpenOffice, and print without any special acrobatics.  Speaking of Acrobat, you can output PDF files directly from the tool without owning Adobe’s encoder, which all by itself, is a tremendous advantage over Microsoft Word.  Those of us who only occasionally save PDF files will save money by going this route (but don’t forget the free PDF generator tools out there on the web if you don’t mind a little clumsiness.)

Writely doesn’t replace your Word processor application completely.  If you aren’t on-line you cannot use Writely (or your files saved there.)   Templates are not well supported in Writely, and it’s tough to use it on most airlines without paying a fee for web access while onboard.  Still, Writely offers expected features of a word processor… spell check, font changes, bullet lists, formatting options and such.  But the real value is in collaboration features, such as live document sharing.  To make a document accessible by a group, you simply set it as a shared document once by adding the email addresses of those you wish to share with.  Everyone can edit the file at the same time, and when you’re working on it, a little indicator at the bottom of the screen will show you who else is looking at it, too.  Each editor of the file will have access via their own Writely menu.  It’s completely effortless.  No more sending Word documents around and wondering who has the latest one.

You can review revisions to the document to keep track of the history of the file.   In some ways, a document on Writely becomes a Wiki-like thing (there he goes again) though without some of a Wiki’s automation.  For example, there is not a current method of automatically adding time/date stamps to typed information – you must look at the revisions page for that.  Each document can be tagged to help organize them in your list of files, and you can use multiple tags, such as “drafts and proposals” to make files easier to find.  Why you can’t do the same thing on Windows is beyond me.

One other terrific feature of Writely is the blogging functionality.  As a blog editor, it’s more effective than those offered with most blogging systems, yet you can post to Blogger with a couple of clicks – formatting preserved.  I often have thoughts that belong in several documents, and the blog, too, so this saves me time moving files around.  Having the documents tagged as “blog-worthy” lets me organize thinking more effectively than simply saving “drafts” in blogger.  What’s more, you can publish an RSS feed from a document, which essentially means your team can add a document to their news aggregator and the updates become “headlines” on their system.  I find this incredibly handy. I simply add document feeds to my Klipfolio tool, and I’m notified when someone changes a file.

Writely is particularly well suited for those who travel a lot, as well as journalists and students.  For journalism, writers and editors simply subscribe to the same document.  Travelers can leave the laptop at home, and students can have access to work from home and school, reducing the need to carry around a USB flash storage device or disks, preventing that dreaded loss of a week’s worth of work.  Speaking of avoiding loss, Writely automatically saves your file every few minutes.   For me, it lets me procrastinate since I can tweak a document right up to the point when my editor grabs it.

Tools such as Writely are often written using a mix of web-oriented programming languages collectively known as Ajax, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (whoo hoo, love that Geeky stuff.)  The bottom line is by using Ajax, developers break free from traditional limitations of browsers such as the need to wait for pages to refresh and lack of drag and drop functionality.  Precision screen control offered by Ajax programming tools and methods means tools can look and feel much more like shrink-wrapped software.

Writely is just one example of Ajax-enabled tools starting to gain momentum on the web.  The new Yahoo Mail beta is difficult to distinguish from Microsoft Outlook, and CalendarHub offers team scheduling abilities.  Microsoft and others are building fully-featured suites available online, also. As these tools mature, many things become possible – including the $100 laptop and desktop computers, loaded with nothing more than Linux, Firefox, and a high speed internet connection.

Writely So!  (originally written in 2006)