Writely, Google’s Free Word Processor: What’s the Catch?

I’d been away in New Hampshire with no Internet access, and I recently returned to the world of modern conveniences. One thing I noticed while I was offline was how much we depend on the Internet for access to many of the resources that we use on our Macs, such as games and photo management tools.

This is only going to increase with Google’s launch of Writely [since integrated into Google Docs], an Internet-based word processor. Google already has a spreadsheet, so it seems they’re going to be challenging Microsoft’s dominance.

A Free Word Processor

Signing up for Writely takes no more than 5 seconds; all you have to do is type in an email address and password. As soon as you enter that information, you can start creating documents – but to use some of the more advanced features, such as collaboration, you need to enter the code found in your confirmation email.

The program assumes you’re familiar with the Windows version of Microsoft Word, as the toolbar icons are very similar. It has it’s own set of menus that you can use to alter the document you’re working on. And, as with Word, you can insert images and tables directly into the document.

Google Writely word procesor

The big feature that Writely boasts over Word is collaboration. You can work on a document along with several other people without having to deal with the complications of passing around a Word document. Traditionally, one would type up a Word document, set it to track changes, email it to Person A, who would edit it and email it to Person B, who would edit it and email it to Person C, and so on, eventually making it back to you.

This brings up the immediate question: “What if Person B wants to add to something person C added?” With a traditional Word document and email distribution, this wouldn’t happen – or if it did, it would take the extra step of emailing it back to Person B.

Writely believes it has a better answer: Make the document editable by anyone you give permission to. It also lets you see who edited which section – a truly excellent idea, but will it catch on?

Firstly, the look is very much like Windows. Mac users may be uncomfortable with this, as many who choose the Mac dislike the way Windows looks and feels.

Google Writely word processor


The key to Writely’s success is compatibility. I’ve had no problems using with Writely in Firefox,* and it allows users to save their documents as Word files, RTF files, OpenOffice documents, PDFs, or even HTML files. This is an excellent choice of file formats, especially given that this software is still in beta.

* Writely supports Internet Explorer 5.5 and later on Windows as well as Mozilla 1.4 or later and Firefox 1.5 and later on Windows and OS X. Camino is not mentioned, but it does work. Safari, Internet Explorer 5 or earlier, Netscape 4 or earlier, Opera, and SeaMonkey are not supported. iCab 3.0. and OmniWeb 5.1.3 are not mentioned, and Writely doesn’t work with either. dk

Writely also provides a built-in spell checker, as well as the option for tagging your document for easy retrieval later on.

And perhaps the greatest benefit of Writely: If your computer crashes and you lose everything on your hard drive, your Writely documents are still backed up on Google’s server. Almost a free backup solution, in a way.

Missing Features

There are some things that Writely is missing that Word has.

Firstly, formatting a page is much more precise in Word. Writely offers some simple tools, but exact margins and font spacing are best left to a hard-drive based word processor for now.

Then there are the fonts: Writely has a few to choose from, so if you’ve got a special font on your computer, you’ll have to use your own word processor to choose it.

Google Writely menu bar

Writely also lacks the page layout view, which I find very helpful for determining what your printed page will look like before you do a print preview. And Writely doesn’t have the “notebook” layout option that Microsoft Word does.

Taking on Microsoft

Apple never really attempted to attack Microsoft head-on, but it appears that Google might be doing just that. In a technology world where innovation and adaptation to changing computing lifestyles is key, Google seems to have the advantage.

Ever since 802.11b/g wireless became the standard for Internet access on laptop computers, people have started to take being online for granted. Google is using this to its advantage, and my guess is that Microsoft will have no choice but to follow in some form or another.

Writely’s not perfect, and I don’t plan on using it for much at present. Still, it’s nice to know that it’s there in case I need it – should Word become corrupt and need to be reinstalled, for instance.