The Writely online word processor lets you type and edit text documents with speed and minimal fuss, as long as you have stable Internet access. If you take work on the road, this app can eliminate any clumsy workarounds you may have used in the past, such as e-mailing yourself a Word file or uploading it to a personal storage service. Instead, you can store a document within Writely (on Google's massive servers) and access it from any computer with Web access. Best of all, if you need to be on the same page with far-flung colleagues, Writely lets you do just that while tracking document edits.
Google's Writely remains in limited beta testing. You can sign up on the wait list at writely.com. Once you have access and log in, setup is simple. Just click the New or Upload links to open a separate browser window for writing and editing a file. The document composition layout is elegant and self-explanatory, with tabs and drop-down menus for basic functions along the top. A strip of editing icons lets you save, print, undo, check spelling, insert Web links, change font formatting, and more. Each time you log in, the main Writely beta interface lists your documents and lets you mark them with a star, tag them with a topic, and archive old files to keep them out of sight. Unlike with the Web-based ThinkFree, you can keep more than one file open at the same time.
To migrate content from another source you can either upload HTML, Microsoft Word, and image files; cut and paste to a Writely document; or e-mail a file to your Writely account. You can save Writely-created documents to a hard drive as HTML, RTF, Word, OpenOffice, and PDF files or as RSS feeds. And while Writely beta still lists PDF publishing as a paid premium feature, this option is now free. You can also create an RSS feed of a document and select settings to keep that feed private or open its contents to the public or to choice individuals.
Writely includes quick menu items for adding a Web link, a table, or an editing comment without confusing you with excessive formatting choices. Writely offers only 18 fonts, a drop in the bucket against Word and WordPerfect, but you do get special characters for adding accented letters for non-English, Roman-alphabet languages. On the other hand, the free online word processor ZohoWriter beta offers 12 fonts. Writely also lets you preview files before you print or post them to the Web. You can use this service to make a blog post, without leaving the page, to accounts at Google's Blogger, as well as to MetaWeblog, Movable Type, BlogHarbor, LiveJournal, Squarespace, and Blogware. Or if you're crafting a novel in Writely, its Bookmarks function allows you to mark the start of each chapter so that you can instantly jump to it without scrolling through dozens of pages. However, we still prefer Corel WordPerfect X3 for writing a tome.
Writely beta's simplicity is a strong draw for us. It didn't irritate us by anticipating our next move as Microsoft Word 2003 does. For example, Writely didn't interpret a desired layout by applying a formatting library to our document. Nor are there hard-to-tweak elements, such as Word's intractable text boxes, or hidden dialog boxes to discover.
The major downside: There's no desktop version of Writely as there is with ThinkFree, so if you get knocked offline you'll have to open those files in another program. If you can't afford a desktop word processor, we recommend the popular, free OpenOffice Writer. But if you depend upon a graphics-intensive office-productivity suite that can integrate charts and graphs from spreadsheets, as well as slides and infographics from a tool such as PowerPoint, then we suggest that you check out the changes due for Microsoft Office 2007 beta 2, a download that you can test-drive for free until the final, pricey product arrives early next year.
To track changes to a file, Writely saves a history of revisions and lets you compare the current version with an earlier edition, from several minutes prior or from the first moment you saved the file. Nevertheless, we prefer Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature, which makes your edits more obvious without switching between separate versions of a document. Writely's collaboration features are strong and self-explanatory, allowing editing and view-only settings. Along the bottom of the document window, Writely displays the identity of users editing your document at the moment, then highlights their edits. And it steps you through the process of sharing your work with the world at large or, via an e-mail invitation, to a select group of people. While the instructions are pretty clear, we'd like Google to add an extra warning step that would make you pause and think twice before you fully open access to a file, just to ensure that you know what you're getting into.
Writely is in its beta-testing phase, and we encountered quirks. For instance, out of the blue, the cursor disappeared, so we couldn't figure out what line we were on. Curiously, immediately after we'd placed our cursor within a red, bold headline in a Writely document, then switched to a document within Word, the text we typed within Word became red and bold. And Google had to change Writely beta's RSS file settings because initially, certain RSS readers could potentially find Writely documents that users thought were closed to the public.
Service and support is very good for this Web-based service, though not superb. Google provides a quick tour, a searchable online knowledge base, and user-guided forums for Writely beta. You can report beta bugs, but there's no e-mail support to help you with unusual questions.
Overall, Google's Writely beta is an excellent tool that can handle most word processing functions. We find it convenient for cash-strapped students, frequent travelers, and small-business people who need to be on the same page with coworkers or clients scattered around the map. Nevertheless, we recommend that you pair Writely with a desktop Word processor as a backup for when Internet access is flaky. It's too bad you'll need a third-party tool to do that.