In March, it was news that Google had acquired a neat web startup called Upstartfile, which was creating a site called Writely. New registrations were closed.

Today, Google quietly re-opened Writely to the general public, who can once again sign up.

I’ve just had a quick look at the new service. In fact, I’m using it to write this blog post. As for impressions? Well, in a word:

excellent! In more detail:

  1. It is fast. As fast as (or faster) than using Word on a local machine. It is a seriously neat piece of coding.
  2. The interface is familiar. It is very much like Word, but simplified. It is testament to the thought put into it that, looking at it alone, the only thing that seems to be missing is the ability to insert footnotes. For a lawyer (or scientist), that’s a big omission, but I’m sure it will be addressed. (Superscript/subscript are hidden in a funny looking downard pointing pseduo arrow that hovering over reveals to stand for “more font effects”.) Apart from that, nothing else that springs to mind seems to be missing. It does colours, highlighting, and the usual formatting and fonts.
  3. It is stable. No serious interface glitches, bad page loads or crashes. There are a couple of small cosmetic glitches relating to the location of the insertion point (eg it jumps one character too far to the right when pressing the arrow key after applying a colour to a letter), but nothing serious.
  4. There are some neat things – eg hitting Cmd+Z performs an undo operation, just as you would expect in a locally running application.
  5. Other things work nicely – autonumbered lists (in one of which this line sits) just work.

It even has some things Word does not:

  1. The most intriguing is the ability to add tags to documents, which look to be a much better way of organising files for later searching.
  2. In addition, the pseudo file system looks to have the potential to make saving and retrieving documents much easier for laymen, as it avoids the usual cumbersome file structures dictated by a local pc’s file system.
  3. The collaborative editing ability looks to be very promising – multiple people editing the same document simultaneously.
  4. The revision history looks like it picks up a “diff” style of working, which allows revision histories and comparison between any versions — very useful for lawyers.
  5. Writely can export straight to a pdf file – possible on Mac OS X, but not on Windows without additional software.
  6. Google has also set up Writely to be able to publish directly to the web and to blogs, which will likely find a big audience.

The only downsides so far:

  1. It does not seem to support Safari.
  2. Style formatting is rudimentary. (But given CSS, this looks like it could be very simply addressed.)

Overall, this program poses a serious threat to Word. I won’t go so far as to label it a Word-killer, but has the potential to eat a lot of Microsoft’s lunch. It currently — subject to my final thought below — won’t supplant Word for users who have other programs (eg versioning systems) embedded into Word, or who use macros. Nor will it appeal to companies or users who may be unable to access the web at times, or for whom document editing is mission-critical, so that the possibility of times when they are unable to access the web would be an unacceptable option.

But for average users, who want to do up a quick letter for printing, or be able to collaborate on a document with someone else, Writely is a very compelling proposition. No need to email files back and forth, or worry about them having Word on their computer.

Two final thoughts:

The first is privacy and confidentiality – Google can see which blogs or sites I post pages to. They could also look at the content if they wished. Not a problem for me, but perhaps to some.

The second was one that came to me while thinking through the ramifications: watch whether Google releases an in-house Writely server, just like the in-house Google search appliances they sell. The scalability and ease of maintenance savings over Word would seem awesome–install one box, and everyone in the firm can access a word processor. No licensing issues. Everyone can collaborate on documents (if the security model were properly tweaked, it could do away with dedicated document versioning systems). Macros and other add-ons could be strictly controlled or excluded. Templates and other things could be served from a single point, rather than pushed onto numerous machines. No upgrade/update hassles – everyone runs the same version instantly. Wow…