writely + web 2.0

August 21st, 2006


It’s every hack writer’s worst nightmare; a fancy new laptop, but without a copy of Microsoft Word installed. How will I know when I’ve reached the magic number of words I’ll need to reach to stop blathering on? How will I hide the shameful fact that I have atrociuos speelking? No matter. I’m not going to need Word to write this article; in fact, I’m not going to need to use any program installed on my computer at all. Instead, I’m testing Google’s online word processor, currently code-named “Writely“. It’s got all the modern features you’d expect from a word processor – spell check, fonts, embedded graphics, rich formatting, and yes, word count. It automatically saves my work as I go, and I can roll back to a time and date stamped past revision of whatever I’m working on at any time. It can print or even save out to a Word or PDF file, so when I’m done I can send off a copy to my editor — hopefully, in time for deadline. It’s pretty futuristic stuff, and I strongly suggest you try it.

But Writely is not an application program on a computer in the way we normally think of; instead, it loads and runs in a web browser such as Firefox or Internet Explorer (Safari, not so much, not right now). All my word processing documents are stored online, so I can stop writing, close my browser, turn off my laptop – heck, throw it away if I want – and days later, from any other computer in the world, I can continue writing exactly where I left off. As long as I have access to the Internet, I’ll have full access to my files.

Writely, and other websites like it, are part of a growing Internet trend named “Web 2.0”. The term, suggesting an “upgraded Internet”, was first popularized by Tim O’Reilly, the publisher of the adorable computer books with pictures of animals on them. Web 2.0 has come to represent a class of more interactive websites that act more like applications or programs you might have installed on your computer. These sites are also frequently typified by a deeper collaborative aspect, and greater interactivity with the user overall; readers are often encouraged to post stories or comments while visiting Web 2.0 websites. Sites like the photo site Flickr, or the social bookmarking site Del.icio.us allow users to “tag”, or categorize, web content so it gains greater meaning. Popular news sites such as reddit.com and digg.com allow their users to promote or demote stories that they find interesting or boring, thus using the kinda-spurious “wisdom of crowds” to edit the sites so as to automatically contain links to the most currently popular and interesting web content.

The concept of the Internet as a platform for “programs we use” versus “pages we read” was attempted once before in the late 1990’s by Sun Microsystems and their cross-platform Java programming language. However, Java programs – despite having the advantage of running on pretty much any computer – were cumbersome and slow, and for the most part users shunned the technology. Current browser-based applications use a combination of spritelier technologies such as Javascript and XML, or “AJAX”, to create rich and responsive interfaces that feel much more like traditional desktop applications.

It’s not hard to imagine the end result of all this Web 2.0 innovation could be a tremendous shift in how we traditionally think of our computers; instead of computers being vessels that hold our programs and documents, instead our computers need only to provide access to the web, and via the web, all our programs, files, and email can be available anywhere. We’ll spend less time managing, categorizing and locating our data, and more time using it. And as the line between web pages and web applications blurs ever further: Microsoft Word need not apply.


NOTE: This article was originally written for the Springfield Republican’s “Local Buzz” alt-monthly. That’s why there’s little to no swearing in it.

4 Responses to “writely + web 2.0”

  1. Aaron Lewis says:

    A key aspect to consider is that you HAVE to have net access to use Writely, and all the other great things Google. I don’t think anybody who’s income depends on their writing should assume they can get Net access whenever they want.

    Of course, most of us in major metro areas really do have net access “all the time”, and in more places then ever. But what does a 1-day or 2-day power outage do to you? Or a new virus affecting routers or servers at Google that screws things up for 3 days, or a week? Or construction on your street that accidentally severs your cable service, and your cable modem is dormant for 4 days while they fix it?

    There’s lots of plausible situations where you lose net access, so you have to do some planning when considering using these net tools (and getting addicted to them, you filthy whores – trying to up the swearing quotient).

    OK, now I’ve thought about it for a second. There’s at least as many scenarios where my computer goes down taking Word with it. And my data with it. Maybe I’ve backed up, maybe I haven’t…at least with Writely, I can just use someone else’s computer. Or any internet cafe, etc., etc.

    Maybe we should start researching what’s more reliable now: your PC at home, or your ability to connect to Google’s servers?

    Gee, I may have just changed my entire thinking.

    But I’d like it not to depend entirely on Google (one company) – I want the net to truly be a web of interoperability for me, where even if part of the big system goes down, I can get the info I want and do what I need using other parts of it.

    More open source solutions hosted everywhere…

  2. Jeff says:

    Google’s got better uptime than most of us do.

    But you’re right, for this to be a 100% viable solution, there would need to be some offline/locally hosted equivalent… personally, I suggest TextEdit.


  3. Jon Land says:

    I believe that only 3rd world nations and hilariously poor Southerners don’t have 24-hour net access, and frankly, all of the above are illiterate so they wouldn’t be able to create text documents anyway. So I choose to look lovingly into the eyes of Google once again and say: “*sigh* Is there anything you can’t do, Sugarcakes? *butterfly kiss*”

  4. cauley says:

    You know what would be really hilarious? Poor Southerners in 3rd world nations WITHOUT Internet access.

    Question: Is your stuff kept safe? That is, is it password protected, like an email account?

    Nice article! But I miss the swearing.