Web Word Processing Made Simple

Writely tool makes composing documents online a snap

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

March 31, 2006

4 Min Read

Composing documents online has been at best cumbersome. Sending changes to a Web server isn't nearly as fast as editing something on your PC's hard drive, and Web word processing has required buying into technology standards that are out of step with the rest of the world, which runs Microsoft Office.

Online word processor Writely, whose creator, Upstartle, was acquired by Google last month, is poised to attempt a second draft of those rules.

(click image for larger view)No more round trips to the server.

Unlike earlier attempts to build online productivity suites, Writely doesn't require users to download additional software, and it imports files created with the reigning industry standard, Microsoft Word, without a problem. Users also can save files to their desktops, eliminating the round trip to the server that plagued previous online writing tools, including a late-'90s Microsoft attempt. And while Writely is still in beta, Google's acquisition of Upstartle for an undisclosed sum could result in a product some businesses will want to check out.

Once Writely emerges from testing--a date not yet specified--Google probably will revise Upstartle's plans to start licensing Writely to companies and charging consumers for extra features. Google says the plans aren't solidified yet, but its model is generally to serve up free software. That could be attractive for some customers as businesses and governments are concerned about getting locked into Microsoft's formats and shelling out $250 per PC for each upgrade of Office.

Google's purchase of four-person Upstartle also demonstrates a new business model for promising startups: Launch on the cheap taking advantage of low-cost technology and quick distribution on the Web, then get snatched up by Google or Yahoo without getting hitched to venture capitalists. Before the Google buy, Upstartle's team worked from their homes without leasing an office.

Question marks remain about Writely's utility. The app lets users upload Word files, but it can only output HTML, not the most flexible format for creating good-looking documents. It invites collaborators to co-edit a file and publish it to a blog, but the inability to create Office-friendly documents means more work for everybody else to open those files once they're done. And Writely dispenses with the familiar Windows and Macintosh folders metaphor in favor of searchable tags on files, but that's not a way of working that most PC users understand.

Meanwhile, Microsoft isn't standing still. It's quickly adding features for E-mail, search, and instant messaging to its Windows Live collection of Web software, and encouraging developers fluent in Windows to add to its Live.com site. That could create momentum for Microsoft's online apps that Google would be hard-pressed to match.

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