Google welcomes Writely sign-ups

Online word processor figures to be part of the search giant's counterweight to Microsoft's Office Live strategy.

Five months after being bought by Google, the Writely online word-processing application is now open for anyone who wants to sign up and use it.

Writely has been closed to all but its existing members since its acquisition by search giant Google in March. But last Thursday, Google allowed anyone to join and make use of the hosted word-processing application.

Writely is a hosted word-processing package that enables users to edit and publish documents online. The package was created by Silicon Valley software development company Upstartle, which was started by software engineers Sam Schillace, Steve Newman and Claudia Carpenter.

The move follows speculation about whether Google intends to challenge Microsoft's Office productivity suite. Last October, Google's partnership with Sun Microsystems set off intense speculation that the companies would collaborate around OpenOffice.org to create a hosted-applications suite. But the two companies merely announced that they would work together on OpenOffice, Java, OpenSolaris and Google's Toolbar.

Despite owning Writely and also launching its own spreadsheet and calendaring offerings and its Gmail e-mail application, the search giant hasn't done much to integrate the disparate elements into anything approaching Office.

Google is not alone in having designs on the hosted office productivity market. Other players include AdventNet's Zoho, Silveroffice's Goffice, ThinkFree and Natium's Flysuite, which are all hoping to grab a chunk of the multibillion-dollar market currently dominated by Microsoft Office.

Speaking to ZDNet UK recently, the chief executive and founder of ThinkFree, T.J. Kang, claimed that the hosted players aren't interested in competing directly with Microsoft but in filling a niche the software giant is reluctant to move into.

"Google has shown that you can give away everything, but Microsoft can't do that--it is very hard to be your own agent of destructive change. They will drag their feet, and they will pay lip service to expanding their hosted model, but I don't think they will be aggressive or creative," Kang said.

Most of the hosted players are initially targeting their software at students and home users, but the rise of an online alternative to Microsoft Office could create even more security headaches for large businesses that want to keep confidential data within their firewall.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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