09 October 2005

brave new word processor

When I first read about Writely (I can't remember where, though I've since read about the experiences that Rick and Rikhei have had with it, and I'm interested to see what comes of Chad's experiments with SynchroEdit), I was extremely excited. Writely (and its rival applications, including SynchroEdit and WriteBoard, which Rikhei was unimpressed with) is a web-based word processor. All of them are hyped as collaborative tools--ways for multiple users in different locations to work on the same document, but they can also be used by a single user to work on the same document at multiple locations. That's the part that got me excited.

For years I have been schlepping files around (either literally, via floppy disk, or virtually, by e-mailing attachments to myself) in order be able to work on them as I move from home to school to work. It's kind of a pain, since I often have to reformat documents--I use a Mac at home and PCs of varying ages and with varying editions of Windows installed on them elsewhere--and from time to time the transfer simply doesn't work.

Wouldn't it be great if I could store my files in cyberspace, and work on them in cyberspace, and have them accessible to me anywhere I can I get online, no muss, no fuss? That day may be coming, but it's not quite here yet. Writely lets me write and keep files on the Web, but so far (and I should cut them some slack; I know they're still in beta) it doesn't provide many of the functions that I need and want in a word processor. It's great for blog posts and probably for Web content in general; I like the template layout rather better than Blogger's, which I'm using now, though I haven't been able to post to my blog directly from Writely yet. But if I'm writing a paper or an article, there are a lot of things I can't do. I can't add footnotes. I can't get a page view to get an idea of how many pages I've written and how much space I have left to fill, and I can't get a word count. In theory you can export the document as a Word file or a .zip file; on my Mac, the .zip file came out nicely as an .html document, but the Word file came out as an Excel file, and I wasn't able to read it at all.

Despite these difficulties, I'm still excited about Web-based word processors. I have a Web site in part because it's such a handy way to store information, although the process of storing it there is somewhat laborious. Web-based e-mail and blogs are wonderful because you can create them on the Web as well as storing them there. I look forward to the day when I can do fully functional word processing on the Web and stop worrying about how to get my words from one place to another.

I have, in the past, stored docs online by setting up a small Web page to access them (an idea I got from a former student, who kept drafts of his novel online in the same way--a precocious student he was); the problem, then, became uploading a newly-revised doc when I didn't remember my login.

when these processors are online, what of security? if they are intended to be collaboration tools, then does that not invite some advertising tool to come along and auto-insert a link for TGIFriday's?
Good point. At the moment, you have to invite people before they can edit your document. I suspect that at some point, devious people will come up with ways to hack around that and we'll have word processor spam as well as comment spam and trackback spam and so on. . . and then other clever people will have to come up with ways to deal with that. Grr. It'd be nice to think there were a few places left where people weren't trying to sell you stuff.

That's part of the reason I like libraries--they're one of the few places I know where you can hang out without being expected to spend money.
that is, assuming the library is of the "free public" variety. :)

invitations to edit? that's probably the most workable way to go about it. --and a bit more controllable than a wiki.
Yeah--I also think some of these are more user-friendly than wikis, which take a little getting used to--although of course Writely is not nearly as much fun to say as wiki.
(off topic)
for you, lc, a picture kl found last night
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