April 12, 2006

First look: ajaxWrite

Author: Bruce Byfield

ajaxWrite could easily become the victim of inflated expectations. The first of a series of online applications by Ajax13, a new company headed by Michael Robertson, the founder of Linspire, ajaxWrite was announced last month with a string of exaggerated marketing claims. Moreover, ajaxWrite's FAQ describes it as a beta, when its features seem alpha-quality at best. Surrounded by such hype, the current release of ajaxWrite risks being dismissed out of hand, instead of being seen for what it is: a basic foundation for a fresh entry into the field of online applications, a rapidly evolving but unproven area of development.

If you look at ajaxWrite, you should disregard many of the statements made about it. True, as an example of development using the increasingly popular Asynchronous JavaScript And XML (AJAX) and the Mozilla-based XML User Interface Language (XUL), it is cross-platform as claimed. However, you will only be disappointed or confused if you take seriously many of the other statements made about it. For example, contrary to the announcement and the sample file that displays at the ajaxWrite page, you cannot count on the program opening in six seconds. The FAQ's claim of 15 seconds is more reasonable, but even that is not a reliable figure. Instead, the actual speed can be anywhere from three to 45 seconds -- depending, no doubt, on the usual vagaries of the Internet, such as your connection speed, your ISP's traffic, and the traffic on ajaxWrite's site. What would be truer to say is that, under ideal conditions, ajaxWrite can open as quickly as any application on your desktop.

Ignore, too, the announcement's statement that ajaxWrite can replace Microsoft Word "for 90% of the people in the world" -- or, for that matter, the FAQ's claim that it has 85% of Word's functionality. The first claim probably refers to the fact that most people use only a small subset of a word processor's features, but the current lack of support for basic features such as headers and footers and page numbers -- or even for viewing a single hardcopy page -- means that many people are going to miss features that they use regularly. Moreover, while I despise Word with the deep-rooted passion that can only be mustered by those forced to produce long documents in it, when I consider that ajaxWrite lacks such Word features as autotext, autocorrection, and even paragraph and character styles, the second claim seems equally questionable. If anything, the current version of ajaxWrite is more comparable to a wiki or perhaps an advanced text editor like Kate than any modern word processor.

So far, the ajaxWrite site will not work with Opera or Internet Explorer, nor with Konqueror set to identify itself as Mozilla. Firefox 1.5 is supposedly required, but ajaxWrite currently works with a wide variety of recent Mozilla-based browsers, including Epiphany and Mozilla itself, so long as the necessary XUL packages are installed.

Talking of browsers leads to the final claim: That the goal of ajaxWrite is, in the words of the announcement, "to revolutionize the way consumers acquire and use PC software." Admittedly, Windows users may still buy most of their software at the store, although free, downloadable applications like OpenOffice.org and the GIMP are available for their platforms. However, as I used apt-get to update my version of Firefox while preparing this review, I kept wondering: Has Robertson forgotten about CNR, the software downloader and updater in his own Linspire distribution? Marketing by nature deals in hyperbole and superlatives, but such grandiose claims risk distracting people from a piece of software that has no need of such tactics to make it interesting.

The interface and features

So, when we dismiss the marketing claims, what's left? The short answer is, a program in an early stage of development. While ajaxWrite closely resembles a desktop application, a quick look through the menu shows several features -- Printer Setup, Find/Replace, and Spelling among them -- are grayed out and still to be implemented. Some are available but minimally functional, such as Insert -> Table, which opens a table consisting of a single cell. Others are available from the menu, but not through the listed key binding, or available via the key binding, but not from the menu.

What is implemented is chiefly the basic features for writing paragraphs. The interface is clean and familiar, with each document opening in a separate tab, and a speed comparable to a desktop application's. If users are familiar with computer programs at all, neither the structure nor contents of the menus or the toolbar should cause them much confusion. The same is true of the implemented formatting options, which so far are confined largely to the typeface, alignment, and the colors for the background and text. So far, even subscript and superscript have yet to be implemented. Perhaps the greatest problem is the minor one of realizing that, to use the fonts listed -- mostly the standard ones in Windows -- you need to have them installed on your system. Yet, for the most part, the claim that ajaxWrite is easy to learn is one of the few pieces of marketing that is supported by a close look at the software.

Ordered and unordered lists in ajaxWrite seem especially well-implemented. In fact, because they can be nested and rearranged without corruption, they actually have an advantage over lists in Word.

When saving, ajaxWrite defaults to Word format. However, a reasonable array of other formats are available, including OpenDocument, RTF, and PDF -- although not, as you might expect in an online application, HTML. As for opening existing documents, at least one person on the ajaxWrite forum has mentioned that complex formatting cannot always be imported successfully from Microsoft Word format.

These points aside, the first incarnation of ajaxWrite has little else to take issue with. It seems to be a reliable structure that a more advanced application can be built upon, but the details of further developments remain unknown. Perhaps the most promising hints come from the View menu. There, grayed-out items for rulers, toolbars, and something called a task pane hint that the finished version will have more features than the current version.

Future prospects

Even assuming that ajaxWrite eventually has a fuller feature set, its future is uncertain. Like all online applications, it depends on a reliable broadband connection, yet this prerequisite is largely lacking in the developing nations that might be most attracted to a free online application. In fact, in some areas, even dialup connections are a luxury. Moreover, in any part of the world, some form of encryption seems necessary if ajaxWrite is to be adapted by businesses or security-minded individuals.

ajaxWrite also faces strong competition from such sources as Writely, Google's newly acquired online word processor, Zoho Writer, and ThinkFree. Each of these programs presently has a more advanced feature set than ajaxWrite. Writely and Zoho Writer both include special features for bloggers and online collaboration. If the rumor proves true that Microsoft's Windows Live is due to expand into online office applications, the competition could become even fiercer.

Most of all, while many companies might welcome online applications as a way to move away from selling software licenses to selling subscription services, no one knows whether users will make the switch. As the speed of ajaxWrite shows, AJAX and XUL make online applications more practical than ever before. Yet, for many, the idea of having software installed locally is so synonymous with computing that it seems the simplest course of action. Even the promise of accessibility anywhere may not be enough to switch significant number of users to online applications in these days of wireless and cheap laptops. The fact that online applications have yet to equal locally installed software, let alone offer anything unique, only makes their acceptance even more difficult.

ajaxWrite's own forums may be the best indication of the difficulties of interesting users in the switch. While Robertson, in introducing ajaxSketch, the second online offering from Ajax13, claimed over half a million documents had been created in ajaxWrite in a week, as I write, only 1500 people have registered for the company's forums, most of whom have not posted. And while allowances have to be made for the server being down for several days following ajaxWrite's announcement, resulting in the loss of some postings, the fact that the most popular areas of the forum are Suggestions and Bugs and Complaints may still be an indication that many users do not find online applications an acceptable substitute for locally installed software.

For now, all we can say is that ajaxWrite is a potential contender in the online application space. And, putting the hype aside, we'll say, so far, so good -- with all the sense of awaiting further development that that phrase implies.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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