Friday, August 18, 2006

Writely Beta Finally Opens (with a Thud)

Hard on the heels of the Windows Live Writer (WLW) beta, Google finally took the wraps off Writely by opening a public beta. Google would have done better by taking a few more months to debug their free online word-processor candidate before exposing it to the general public. Jen asked in the Writely blog:

Why have we reopened now? Maybe it was because we just won a very nice product review on CNET ... or maybe it was that ten-billionth person who emailed us to say, "Hey what's UP? When will Writely open again?" Well, in fact, now Writely is truly ready to open its doors to everyone, so let's just do it!

I'm sure the timing of the WLW beta influenced Google's timing for releasing the Writely beta, but I'm not as sure that "Writely is truly ready to open its doors to everyone." For example, I immediately encountered problems in IE 7 Beta 3 deleting selected text and formatting paragraphs as block quotes. Note: WLW is a downloadable .NET 2.0 WinForm app, while Writely is an online .NET 2.0 WebForm app. (The .aspx file extension indicates ADO.NET Web pages.)

Writely as a Blog Editor It's a good bet that many Writely users will test it for blog posting, but they're likely to be disappointed. For example, I set up the OakLeaf Systems Blogger blog as the single publishing point in this dialog (Writely currently supports posting only to a single blog): Clicking test returned the following message: However, when I tried to publish the document to the OakLeaf blog (there's no option to post a draft version), I received this error message: ( does not appear to be a valid url). However, Writely was successful at posting a draft, which I converted to this post. (The problem is undoubtedly due to the captcha entry required for posts.) Writely gets the nod over WLW for image handling because Google stores your images on line if you insert them with IE7. I specified Center alignment for all images I imported, but all graphics ended up left aligned. The 1 px black right border on all images is an artifact of the capture program, which doesn't appear when capturing in other applications. Image size settings don't include an option to maintain aspect ratio, so I had to calculate the height setting when limiting the width of images to 400 px wide (the maximum width of the text area of my blog). I gave up and used Paint.NET to resize the images with much better quality scaling. Blog preview doubles the number of newline characters. Here's the top of the test edit page:

And here's the corresponding top of the blog post preview: Browser Change

My results with IE 7 were so poor that I decided to check out Firefox 1.5. So I saved the document, opened it in Firefox, and rechecked the problems I was experiencing.

Firefox correctly formatted the block quote, but didn't fix any of the other issues that I encountered and described above. Firefox appeared to save images to the local file system instead of to or the like, caused problems with detecting image dimensions during insertion, and didn't respect my default 350-px maximum width setting for the text: Back to IE7 Beta 3 Round-tripping content between Writely and my OakLeaf Systems blog turned out to be a nightmare. Content copied and pasted from Blogger's Compose window appears OK in the Writely editor (except it's not in the selected font), but you must export HTML from Writely and paste it into Blogger's Edit HTML window, then do major fixups due to doubling or tripling of newline characters on importing to Blogger.

At this point, I decided to copy and paste the HTML with IE7 Beta 3 to the OakLeaf blog so I could point folks in the Google Groups: Writely Discussion Group to examples of the issues. Join the group and see what others have to say about my problems. Watch for frequent updates as I see what other reviewers and folks in the Writely Discussion Group have to say about Writely's readiness for prime time.

Interim Conclusion

Writely isn't even close to cooked as a blog editor. I doubt if CNET tested Writely's compatibility with "Google Blogger" (or any other blogging software) for its review. I'm also concerned about the different set of issues I encountered with IE 7 and Firefox. For now, I'll stick with WLW for blog editing, despite having to add images as a second operation in Firefox.

Paul Graham of the Y Combinator venture-capital group takes the position that competing head-to-head with a Google app ensures the immediate or eventual demise of a start-up. He cites the flat-lining of Kiko as an example, but David Heinemeier of 37Signals says "Google does not render resistance futile." Dare Obasanjo concludes that "Kiko was a feature, not a full-fledged online destination let alone a viable business." Fortunately, Google doesn't need—or, I assume, intend—to make a business out of Writely.

Competing online word-processors, such as Zoho Writer (beta), ThinkFree Office 3 (beta), or Glide Write 1.0 (beta) might suffer eventual extinction by a greatly improved Writely, but it's not likely that the final Writely version will shoot down WYSWYG blog editors like WLW, Qumana, RocketPost, Performancing (for Firefox), and ecto (for MacOSX and Windows).

Note: RocketPost's attempt to charge US$12 for the software might lead to immediate extinction by WLW, Qumana, Performancing, or ecto.

A read-only version of the Writely document for the initial version of this post is here.

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