September 5, 2006

Online word processors: A hands-on comparison

Author: JT Smith

The last year has seen the first appearance of online word processing applications such as ajaxWrite, ThinkFree Online, Writely, and Zoho Writer. Online office applications are an unproven product in a new market. To see how worthwhile they were, I compared their interfaces, basic and advanced features, and their document export and administration capabilities. The results are not only a summary of the four applications' strengths and weaknesses, but also an indication of how far online word processors still have to go before they can match their desktop counterparts.


Interfaces

The interfaces on these applications vary from traditional word processor layouts to innovations that seem to have little point.


ajaxWriter - click to enlarge

Both Zoho Writer and ajaxWrite open directly in an editing window, Zoho with the last document opened, ajaxWrite with a Welcome page that summarizes some of its capabilities. By contrast, Writely and ThinkFree Online open on a list of files, with a toolbar for file administration. None of these choices seems ideal, considering that desktop applications condition users to expect an editing window with a blank document.

ajaxWrite, Writely, and Zoho Writer all open a new file in an average of 5-8 seconds, although the exact time can vary wildly with site traffic, and occasionally doubles. Likely because it is based on Java, ThinkFree is consistently slower than the rest. Even in its Quick Edit mode, which is most comparable to the other online word processors, files usually take 12-15 seconds to load. ThinkFree's Power Edit mode is slower still, taking 30-45 seconds to load the first file. However, it is marginally faster in loading subsequent files, and compensates for the delay by offering the most complete feature set.

The editing window for ajaxWrite is the most traditional of the four, with a menu and icon bar comparable to those of a graphical text editor such as KDE's Kate. The arrangement of documents in tabs is an especially welcome feature. ajaxWrite's only peculiarity is that, in a new document, it displays a page only a few lines long, then expands it as necessary. Similarly, in Power Edit, ThinkFree resembles a desktop word processor in layout -- specifically, Microsoft Word, whose layout and appearance it copies closely. ThinkFree's Quick Edit mode is slightly more cryptic, relying almost entirely on icons, but is also very clean and easy to use.


ThinkFree Online (Power Edit) - click to enlarge

Rather than following traditional application design, both Zoho and Writely attempt to innovate, although without much success. Zoho is top-heavy with five rows of commands, menus, and icons, with the document name squished in between the top two rows. Since the commands resemble links, the result is a cluttered, half-finished interface that slows down the new user. Writely's interface is somewhat less cluttered, but lacks any clear logic. Instead of following the time-honored layout of menus from left to right of Files to Help, it offers File, Tag, Insert, and Change, then ends with font and font size and Done and Cancel buttons, while Edit, instead of coming after File, is shunted to the tab-like buttons for file administration above.

Verdict: None of the applications is a strong winner here, but ajaxWrite's speed and clean interface give it the lead. ThinkFree comes second simply because its interface is easy to understand. Zoho and Writely offer complications in the guise of innovations.


Basic formatting tools

All four applications rely heavily on manually-applied character and paragraph formatting, including bold and italic faces, superscript and subscript, and alignments. In Power Edit mode, ThinkFree uses the fonts installed on your desktop, although it cannot display them properly; the others, including ThinkFree's Quick Mode, use the core fonts installed in Windows, with Fixed and Variable available in ajaxWrite. Both ajaxWrite and Zoho default to eight-point Arial, which is too small for most purposes. Writely's choice of ten-point Verdana seems a more reasonable default choice, if no less Windows-centric.


Writely - click to enlarge

Only ThinkFree in Power Edit allows users to create new character and paragraph styles. Basing its selection on HTML tags, Zoho's styles are limited to six levels of headings and a normal and preformatted style, plus an option to use a stylesheet. Writely offers three headings, normal, and block quote, as well as a choice of line spaces for pages. ajaxWrite does not support styles at all.

Beyond character formatting, ajaxWrite, Writely, and Zoho have few basic formatting options. While each supports numbered and bulleted lists, in each lists become corrupted if nested. ajaxWrite does not support graphics, and provides only a single-cell table. Both Writely and Zoho support table formatting similar to those in HTML, such as width, padding, and alignment, and similar options for graphics, with Writely limiting uploaded graphics to two megabytes. None of the other three can compare to ThinkFree, which supports nested lists and ordinary word processor features such as repeating headings on tables longer than a page and merging and splitting table cells, and a choice of how text flows around both tables and graphics. ThinkFree also includes a collection of clip art, which is as mediocre as most clip art collections are, and the ability to link to pictures in Flickr.

Verdict: ThinkFree in Power Edit mode is the only one in the race here. If I had to, I would put Writely and Zoho in a tie for second, with ajaxWrite trailing far behind. Based on their choice of fonts, I would give all the entries a strong caution that the entire point of Web applications is that they are supposed to be operating-system-neutral.


Advanced formatting tools and unique features

None of these applications can match a mature word processor like OpenOffice.org in advanced features. ajaxWrite has no features beyond basic text formatting, and the others are seriously limited in their advanced features.


Zoho Writer - click to enlarge

ThinkFree, Writely, and Zoho all have a dialog window for inserting special characters. All three also have a spell checker, although Writely's only works once until the document is saved again. ThinkFree's has the option of checking the spelling as you type. Zoho's is peculiar in that it identifies all misspelled words in a single batch without offering any suggestions. Each also has limited search and replace capacity; Zoho offering options for search direction in the document and case, Writely for case and whole word, and ThinkFree for case and whole word.

Beyond these similarities, advanced features vary widely among the three. ThinkFree, Zoho and Writely all offer versioning, but only Writely and ThinkFree give a word count. Zoho is unique in allowing documents to be saved as templates and providing skins for the editing window. However, ThinkFree's Power Edit mode has a even more extensive list of unique features, including a set of drawing tools comparable to OpenOffice.org's, fields, autocorrect, footnotes, and a table of contents. ThinkFree is also alone in specifying that all users have one gigabyte of storage on its site and recording usage in the list of files.

Verdict: ThinkFree lopes to an easy victory, with Zoho Write beating Writely by half a head for second, and ajaxWrite so far behind it might as well be in another race.


Document export and administration

Regardless of whether the applications use separate windows for file management and editing, their available features are much the same.

In theory, all four applications can open files uploaded from your hard drive. In practice, however, I never managed to upload a file in any format to ajaxWrite. In ThinkFree, uploads are limited to 10 megabytes. All four also offer export to a variety of formats, including Microsoft Word, HTML, PDF, and RTF, with Zoho, ajaxWrite, and Writely also saving to OpenOffice.org format and Zoho to Open Document Format.

From ThinkFree, Writely, and Zoho, users can share files with online users, or post a document directly to a blog. Writely also includes the option to make documents available by RSS feed, surrounding the action with suitable warnings about privacy.

Verdict: This category is by far the closest. I give Writely a narrow edge, with Zoho second, followed by ThinkFree, then ajaxWrite.


Conclusion

In most ways, online word processors have still to prove themselves. While they ought to be attractive to users of proprietary software, they offer few if any advantages over free software equivalents for the desktop. Moreover, although they advertise that they are available from any location, all are dependent on Internet access, which none can guarantee will be uninterrupted. Nor do any of them provide any guarantee of privacy.

As for features, in many cases, the usability of online word processors depends largely on what you can do without. When I first reviewed ajaxWrite and ThinkFree, I assumed that, since both were in beta, more features would be forthcoming, but, after several months, that does not seem to be happening as quickly as I expected. For the most part, the developers of online applications seem content to match the features of their competitors -- as witness Google's recent relaunch of Writely with much the same feature set as Zoho Writer. Moreover, in their neglect of most of what makes a word processor efficient, including styles, these products sometimes seem like an online regression to typewriters, a technology that few of us who suffered through it would care to see revived.

ThinkFree suffers badly in comparison to the features of OpenOffice.org. However, when compared to its online competitors, it is unrivaled. Its sole drawback is the slow loading time. For those who find the loading time an unsurpassable obstacle, either Zoho Writer or Writely will do for basic documents. ajaxWrite, unfortunately, has so far failed to develop, and for now seems suitable mainly for memos and informal documents -- the type of thing for which I would use Tomboy, the GNOME desktop applet for notes.

For all the attention that online apps are getting, they are obviously still in their earliest days.


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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