Imagine the situation: You’re visiting your parents’ home for the holidays, a thousand miles from your own PC, when inspiration strikes, a brilliant idea for the next plot twist in your novel! Or consider: you’re on a business trip and your laptop is stolen — and the proposal you’re working on is due tomorrow! Or you’re on campus when you remember you have an assignment due in two hours — and you live an hour away!
Maybe you have a thumb drive you keep your work on; now all you have to do is find a PC that can read your files, and hope you remembered to backup the files you need right away. But advances in web technology over the last couple years have given us another way to work from anywhere, no matter what computer we have access to, as long as we have access to the Internet: online word processors.
An online word processor gives you the ability to create, edit, save, and access your documents from anywhere. The best ones also allow you to share documents, track changes and revert to earlier versions, and collaborate with other writers. Best of all, any reasonably up-to-date computer can access them, usually without installing anything (some require ActiveX, Flash, or Java — all of which are already present on most computers).
I’ve been using several online word processors since Writely (now Google Docs) was launched a while back, and with recent updates to Google Docs and Zoho, and the launch of a few new ones, I decided to check out the field and see what I might have been missing in the online word processing world. I was surprised to find 13 different online word processors (and a 14th, still in testing, that I couldn’t get running) available for free (there are some paid ones out there, but given the quality of some of the free ones I decided to exclude them from this round-up).
My favorite, by far, is the newly-launched Buzzword, recently acquired by Adobe. Buzzword runs in Flash, and I generally hate Flash (in fact, I use the Flashblock extension in FireFox to disable Flash-based content by default). But Buzzword uses Flash incredibly well, providing a usable word processor that’s stunningly gorgeous. Look (click any of the screenshots for full-size views):
Buzzword allows for full formatting, headers and footers, page numbering, endnotes, tables and images, keyboard shortcuts, and commenting — all the basic word processing functions most people tend to use. It also offers a running word count, inline spell-checking, and revision history — great for writers! The menu takes some getting used to; the paragraph, list, image, and table settings slide into place when you click their icons on the right side of the toolbar.
I do have a few very minor complaints. The first is that the fonts available are Adobe’s own, beautifully designed but proprietary, typefaces. Which means that chances are they’ll be replaced with your system’s defaults (Times New Roman and Arial for Windows users) when you download a document and open it in Word or another word processor. Also, Buzzword doesn’t give you the ability to export as pdf — strange, considering it’s Adobe. And finally, Adobe doesn’t say how much storage they’re offering users — though given the small size of text documents, it doesn’t have to be very much to be useful.
Let me tell you how much I like Buzzword: I started writing a book
The big surprise doing this research is that my second-favorite online word processor is one whose name I’d never heard: iNetWord. In fact, if Buzzword hadn’t just come out, iNetWord would be at the top of my list. This is a full-featured, complete word processor, with support for backgrounds, borders, page-numbering, tables, images, the works. It comes with several built-in templates — for both web tasks like page design and blog posting, and business tasks like faxes and letters — and is incredibly responsive. It’s tabbed interface is a nice touch, allowing you to open and work on several documents at the same time. And it’s still in beta!
Up until now, my “go to” web-based word processor has been Google Docs. I’ve also used Zoho Writer quite a bit; ThinkFree I’ve stayed away from, not because it isn’t well-done but because it uses Java, and I’ve never had much luck with Java-based apps. These three are the “big dogs” of online word processing, and are integrated into online office suites — with spreadsheets, presentation editors, project managers, contact managers, notebooks, and other goodies — that make them very compelling.
Here are the rest of the online word processors I’ve tried out, in alphabetical order. Some of these are quite good, some have highly specialized uses, and some are not quite ready for full-time use. Taken together, though, they show the incredible possibility of online applications, and hopefully provide each other with some healthy competition and incentive to realize that possibility. Maybe next year one of these will have replaced Buzzword as my new online word processor of choice– or even as my daily use
The Next Big Thing might well be Ulteo, which promises the entire OpenOffice.org suite online, accessible through any browser. I’ve signed up for the beta test, but so far I haven’t been able to try it out. Being able to access OpenOffice.org anywhere would be a big step — and might just push Microsoft to finally make it’s Office apps available online. (Or is that not the idea I’m supposed to get out of their “Microsoft Live Office” product’s name?) The ultimate dream is to be able to do anything online I can do with computer-based software — and Ulteo, if it works, is a huge step in that direction.
As a writer, a good, solid word processor is my most important tool; as someone who often finds himself away from home and wanting (or needing) to write, the quality of some of these word processors is greatly appreciated. I was surprised that my two favorites were brand new to me — I’m looking forward to giving Buzzword and iNetWord a thorough working-out over the next few months.
Do you find these applications useful? What online word processor do you use, and why? Have I missed anything — and, especially, have I missed anything that would replace Buzzword as my new favorite? (I’m fickle like that — if something else comes along, I’ll move on in a heartbeat!)
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