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).
New Kid on the Block: Adobe Buzzword
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 just so I could play with it more. I’ve written over 13,000 words — 39 pages — including a nicely formatted title page. It’s simply a joy to work with, especially with the browser set to full-screen.
The Sleeper Candidate: iNetWord
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!
The Big Three: Google Docs, Zoho Writer, and ThinkFree
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.
Google Docs: Formerly Writely, Google Docs was the first online word processor I used to any significant degree. Like all things Google, it’s interface is clean — maybe too clean — and it generally just works. Basic formatting is easy, storage space is generous (though documents are limited in size), and sharing and version control are easy. Because the underlying code is plain HTML, though, some things are awkward, like multiple indenting. Still, I’ve created dozens of documents on Google Docs, and have no real complaints.
Zoho Writer: Even though I use Google Docs much more often, I like Zoho Writer more. (Go figure out people, huh?) Zoho offers a great interface, and almost every feature a writer could ask for — page numbering, footnotes, templates, sharing, publishing to web, export as pdf. They’re also integrating with Box.net, which means I’ll be able to open, edit, and save documents from and to my Box.net account, which I like.I use Zoho for big documents, and Google Docs for “quickies” — but I have a lot more of the latter than the former.
ThinkFree: Java-based ThinkFree is a great editor — once it starts running. The “quick edit” function, with a limited toolset, is pretty snappy; the “power edit” function (pictured above) can take a minute or longer to load. Once loaded, though, it’s essentially Word 2003 , with autocorrect, tables, styles, word count, insert fields, export to pdf — everything but, as far as I can tell, headers and footers. It picks up the fonts from the PC it’s running on, which means you get a nice selection; unfortunately text looks pretty crummy, I assume because it’s running in Java.
All the Rest
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 word processor!
ajaxWrite: With it’s simple interface and clean workspace, you’d think ajaxWrite would be ideal for quick writing without distractions, and I’d like to think it is. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to save when running it in FireFox. Other people swear by ajax13’s apps, though, so I’m assuming it’s just a conflicting extension or something.
docly: As a word processor, docly is passable — similar in functionality to KB Docs and GreenDoc, below. What sets docly apart, though, is its focus on copyright management, with the ability to assign a work a Creative Commons license or a traditional “All Rights Reserved” license. Documents can be shared and published, as in most of the other online services covered here, or they can be offered for sale and accessed through their search engine.
gOffice: Although gOffice’s main product is a paid suite, and thus excluded from this round-up, for now at least their iPhone-compatible word processor is available free. Not the most useful application, as it adds an ad for gOffice when you save, but a unique test-of-concept, and one I imagine will lead to more useful iPhone applications in the future.
GreenDoc: Basically an online web-page editor, GreenDoc allows you to start writing and save directly to the web without logging in. Documents stay online for 90 days, or you can create an account for more permanent storage. The toolset is a standard range of formatting options, good for basic, no-frills editing.
KB Docs:Another no-frills editor, even more basic than GreenDocs. Distinguished by it’s easy sign-up — just pick a username and password, hit enter, and you’re editing.
Peepel: Part of a full-fledged webtop system, Peepel’s word processor has a pretty good set of basic options, with some nice templates. The user interface is weird — maybe “quirky” is a better word: click on the site’s logo to open the menu.
WriteBoard: Created by the good folks at 37Signals, WriteBoard is a bare-bones, wiki-style editor intended more for collaboration than authoring. Technically I guess this isn’t a “word processor”, but it’s a decent, bare-bones editor — especially if you’re already comfortable with wiki formatting codes.
Writer: This one is also not technically a word processor. Writer is a stripped-down writing environment intended for writers. It offers no formatting, no spell-checking, no fonts — nothing but green text on a black screen (recalling those TRS-80 days of yore…) and a word count, so you can write write write until you hit your goal.
The Rookie: Ulteo Offers OpenOffice.org Online
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!)