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February 13, 2006 10:28 am

Green and orange scribe

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To come across a genuinely useful innovation in word processing software is surprising; and to find an aesthetically pleasing one is extraordinary. Writely is both of those things.

At its heart is an extremely simple idea. Rather than running a word processing program on your computer, just go to www.writely.com and create a document in your internet browser.

There is nothing to download and nothing to install. As Writely founder Sam Schillace puts it: as “Hotmail is to Outlook, Writely is to Word”.

There are other online word processing tools, such as gOffice, and Microsoft is due to launch a complete online office suite this year.

What sets Writely apart is the elegance with which it is put together. For a start, it looks nice. The menu buttons are a calming green on a delicate orange-tinted background, with a cute pencil logo at the top of the screen.

It doesn’t have quite the dazzling variety of features you find in the latest version of Word, but most of the ones people actually use are there.

You can insert pictures, tables, and hyperlinks, change colours and fonts, and search and replace.

Misspelt words are underlined with the familiar squiggly red line. It even handles Hebrew and Chinese characters.

Documents are automatically saved every few seconds, so losing your connection will not destroy hours of work. Clever use of the increasingly popular browser technology called Ajax helps to make Writely almost as responsive as running an application on your own machine.

The best aspect of using an online word processor is that several people can edit the same document at once. Rather than e-mailing versions around, getting confused about which is the latest, and clogging up everyone’s inboxes, you can save a single copy in one place and work on it together simultaneously.

It is handy for hotdeskers, too. No more carrying files around on a USB drive – just keep them securely on Writely’s servers, and access them wherever you are.

Once it’s done, a document can be saved as a Word File, an Open Office document, sent directly to a blog, or turned into a PDF.

All these features have been put together by three people in just six months. In fact, the product still has not been officially launched. It’s still in the beta-testing phase, although anyone can sign up for an account, and 130,000 people have done so, says Mr Schillace.

The service has been popular with internet café users, particularly in Asia, where many people do not have their own PC on which to save documents.

The owners will have to start making money from Writely at some point, either by charging for access to advanced features, or taking advertising. But they promise not to “betray their users” by trapping their saved work behind the subscription wall and charging a fortune to access it. Mr Schillace even considered giving current users free access for life.

There are still a few limitations. For example, it handles only US spelling, so “humour” will be underlined as a mistake. And of course, it does not work offline. It will not replace your existing software, but if you are hot-desking, collaborating, or simply bored of Word, it is good to have another tool in the box.

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