Writely is almost the right stuff

As a reporter, I’m never sure when the muse will strike or an editor will call. That’s why I send copious notes and drafts of stories to myself by e-mail. As long as I’m within range of a computer with an Internet connection, I know I’ll be able to tweak the latest version or do a quick fact check.

But as projects undergo revisions, my inboxes overflow and I start to feel the pain.

Then I started using Writely, a free word processor that runs in a Web browser. The program was built by a startup called Upstartle and was acquired by Google Inc. in March.

Writely is to Microsoft Word what Gmail is to Outlook: A speedy online program that retains familiar features of traditional desktop software and isn’t afraid to introduce new ways of taking advantage of the Web. Unlike a boxed program, Writely runs on a server somewhere on the Internet.

But will Writely dethrone Microsoft Corp., which ships more than 90 percent of word processors used by U.S. consumers and businesses? Writely – even as a beta test – has the right stuff, but it needs some polishing.

It took less than a minute to register at www.writely.com and get a blank document open on my screen. As someone used to Word and OpenOffice Writer, a free desktop-based word processor, I felt comfortable playing around with formatting: familiar buttons across the top of the screen let me change fonts, indent paragraphs and cut and paste.

In fact, the first reminder I was working on the Web came when I hit save. It was done in a flash. Because it saves to a remote server, the process seemed eerily quiet without the grinding hard-drive noise I’ve become accustomed to. The program auto-saves often and warns me if I try to close an unsaved document. It also can save files to your desktop.

Speaking of saving: Writely stores documents without assigning any particular format. Users who want to download the document to their hard drives can save as HTML, rich text, Word, OpenOffice or Portable Document Format files.

If Writely stopped here, we’d have a solid, basic Web-based word processor. But Writely doesn’t stop.

Instead of using folders, Writely offers a tagging system akin to Gmail’s to keep files organized, along with a search box. When I sign in, I see an index of my files. I can assign tags, or short keywords, to my files and then use those tags to sort later.

This article, for instance, is tagged with the word “technology,” and I can create an index that contains only my “technology” files, as opposed to “personal” files.

Tagging is a paradigm shift from the foldered universe of most computer desktops. But Microsoft’s upcoming operating system, Vista, is said to employ some form of it, as does Apple Computer Inc.’s Mac OS X.

Another issue Writely tries to tackle is collaboration. In the past, if five people needed to edit a report, some poor soul was stuck making sure changes were incorporated into one master document.

With Writely, documents can be shared by sending an e-mail invitation to any number of people. All can work on the same page simultaneously; Writely saves often and keeps track of revisions, highlighting changes and additions from different editors in bright colors. Cyberspace collisions are rare, unless two people are trying to change the same few words at once. When it did happen, I received a polite error message detailing the text it discarded to resolve the collision.

My editor and I did a lightweight test of the collaboration function while passing drafts of this story back and forth without any snags.

We were also intrigued by the idea that he could keep track of my writing by subscribing to a Really Simple Syndication feed of my article, but we couldn’t get it to work. I chatted with Upstartle co-founder Sam Schillace, and he fixed a bug in the system. But a week later, we still couldn’t figure out how to get edits to show up in the editor’s reader.

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