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It’s no secret I am a fan of online word processors — computing in the cloud is just the thing for a guy like me who (I’m told) is apt to find his head in the clouds as well. I’m writing this on Google Docs, and have made no secret of my love for Adobe’s Buzzword (which unfortunately seems to have some issues on the computer I’m using right now). Zoho Writer has gotten a little use from me as well.

I was recently asked what the big deal was — why should anyone go online when there’s a perfectly good copy of Office, Works, WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, Pages, WordPad, LaTeX, AbiWord, KDocs, or any of a multitude of other powerful, effective, and highly usable word processors available from the desktop? What advantage could a feature-limited online word processor possibly offer.

It’s a good question, and one that boils down as much to subjective factors as to any absolute benefits word processing online might offer. And it’s a question with as much relevance for the whole range of powerful Web 2.0 apps that have emerged over the last couple of years and which look set to dominate computing in the near-to-mid-future. Spreadsheets, image editors, presentation software, databases, and more are migrating online, and it’s reasonable to ask why, and to what end?

What follows is my response to the question — the reasons that matter to me as an end-user of many kinds of online applications, particularly word processors. There may well be other, even better, answers to the questions online apps pose; at the same time, some of my reasons might not apply to everyone, or even to anyone other than me. But in the end, I think that my experiences aren’t all that unique, and while I might represent an extreme in some regards, the reasons that online apps work well for me will apply to at least a significant number of other people, if not most.

Availability
The main benefit of online word processors for me is their availability from any computer with an Internet connection. Since my schedule puts me in front of a number of different computers throughout the course of the day, and changes as well from semester to semester, I can’t count on being able to access the same software on one computer that I used on the last — and unfortunately, although most modern file formats can be read by any word processor, there’s always the risk of losing formatting, pagination, or fonts opening a document created in one program (or version) in another.

Using an online word processor means I have a standard format and interface from computer to computer — I don’t have to worry about whether the version of Word on this computer matches the one on the computer where I started my document, or whether I won’t be able to open it at all. I just log in to Google Docs or Buzzword and continue where I left off — as I am with this post, which I started writing in my office at the university and which I’m finishing on my netbook at home.

Off-site storage/backup
Another advantage of cloud-based word processors is that no matter what kind of trouble I get into, my documents are still safe and sound on servers hundreds of miles away. I can’t tell you how many thumb drives I’ve left in computers — or put through the washing machine. I’ve never done that with the Internet…

The document storage online word processors offer gives me an excellent off-site backup for important documents, even ones I don’t create or work on online. I feel a lot better knowing that copies of my most important documents exist far away from my home, just in case.

Collaboration/Sharing
When it comes to collaboration, most online word processors beat even the mighty Word, hands down. Documents can be worked on live, rather than emailing copies back and forth and trying to keep track of versions. More important, you don’t have to contend with Microsoft’s awful, awful, awful Track Changes (which isn’t to say other word processors do it much better…).

Plus, most online word processors allow you to set various levels of permissions, so that you can offer read-only access to one group of viewers, full editing privileges to another, and the ability to add comments to a third. You can often post documents directly to the Web, too, which can be quite handy.

User interface
Finally, some online word processors just have good user interfaces. Google Docs is simple, streamlined, perfect for just opening a document and slapping some thoughts together. Adobe’s Buzzword, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous — it inspires me just to look at it. I wrote the first 10,000 or so words of my book, Don’t Be Stupid, on Buzzword just to keep using it!

It seems foolish to point to the way an app looks as an advantage, but I’d argue it’s a very real factor. Tools matter — ask any carpenter. Buzzword to me is like I imagine a finely forged chisel is to a woodworker — my fingers just itch to get to work. Google Docs is like a set of sturdy wrenches — nothing too fancy, but I know it gets the job done. While there are desktop-based apps that also feel quite good to use, the stripped-down interfaces of online apps seems especially well-suited to this kind of inspiration.

So there you have it — four big reasons why I use online word processors, even when I have Office or some other program easily accessible. Like I said, there may be other reasons — and maybe you have reasons I haven’t thought of. Why not share your thoughts in the comments below?

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