August 21, 2009

Pioneering Start-Ups Offer Choices Rivaling Google Docs

Better-known offerings like Google Docs and Zoho Writer are now spurring intense innovation among competing start-ups in the realm of Web-driven word processing environments for Linux and other OS.

Online word processor EtherPad, for example, is the creation of a group of ex-Google employees who came together to form a start-up named Appjet. Unlike Google Docs, EtherPad lets you work online with friends and colleages in “absolute realtime.”

ScribTeX, an online writing and editing environment designed mainly for scientific documents, also draws its direct inspiration from the generically oriented Google Docs.

In last week's discussion of Google Docs, Zoho, and Adobe's Buzzword, we touched on a few of the advantages online word processors hold over word processing software such as and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice.

For one thing, because online word processors are browser-based, they can generally run easily on just about any PC, ranging from small netbooks to larger systems already consumed by other applications.

Moreover, by and large, documents written in online word processors can be stored in the cloud, and then accessed from just about any Linux, Mac OS X, or Microsoft Windows machine.

So let's say you want to get a jump on a huge project staring you in the face at work. You might start the job over the weekend on your Linux laptop, and then finish it up the following week on an office PC running Windows Vista, at the same time sparing yourself the hassle of loading the doc on to one of those compact and annoyingly easy-to-lose USB fobs.

But other factors weigh in favor of online word processors, too. For instance, online environments also lend themselves to easy document sharing, since people are freed from the need to download and install specialized software on to their respective PCs – a challenge that can become particularly daunting when some folks are working in Linux and others in Windows.

Billing itself as the only online word processor capable of operating in what is “really realtime,” EtherPad is especially tuned to meeting those collaboration needs. If you make an edit to something a co-worker has written on EtherPad, it will become visible to all team members immediately, in comparison to the 15 seconds it takes for Google Docs to make and reflect such changes.

Meanwhile, experimentation with online spaces is also leading to new twists on the traditional office suite model. An environment called ZCubes, for example, contains a full function word processor called ZEditor, along with a presentation packaged dubbed ZSlide. But ZCubes' similarity to regular office suites ends just about right there.

Described by the company as an “omnifuctional platform,” ZCubes combines text and multimedia document creation with functionality that includes Web browsing, search, personal Web page production, photo organization, and much more. ZCubes does encompass at least six other applications in addition to ZEditor and ZSlide, including an app named Calci. But Calci is not a spreadsheet, the third ingredient that typically appears in suites side-by-side with a word processor and presentation package.

To the contrary, Calci is “very, very different from spreadsheets--and far more powerful,” according to ZCubes' Web site. “It can make any Zdocument into a fully functional calculation engine.”

You should keep in mind, however, that most online word processing environments are still in rather early stages of development. Also on the down side, some capabilities don't work on Linux, and some services aren't available free of charge.


First introduced just last fall, the EtherPad realtime word processor uses colors to denote the edits made by various users. A key on one side shows which color is assigned to each user.

For privacy's sake, each online session of EtherPad has its own URL, so that only those people you invite to the session can view or contribute to it.

But in spite of its admirable propensities for realtime collaboration, EtherPad drew lots of criticism early on for a limited feature set and clunky user interface (UI). In July of this year, however, a new version of EtherPad entered beta testing.

The new release from Appjet offers a simpler UI while adding features such as bulletpoints, strikethrough, bold, and italics. Also, you can now import and export PDF, plain text, HTML, and Microsoft Word documents.

EtherPad Professional Edition is free for up to three users, but it costs $8 per user per month for any more users than that. Also available is a Private Network Edition for Enterprises, which enables documents to be housed behind a company's firewalls. For the network edition, Appjet charges $99 as a one-time “fee for life.”


When originally launched by the Texas-based start-up bearing the same name, ZCubes ran only on the Internet Explorer (IE) browser on Windows. But then, in 2007, ZCubes gained a plug-in to the Firefox browser, opening up access to Linux, Unix and Mac OS X users.

ZEditor, ZCubes' word processor, lets you apply different font sizes and colors, just as you can with traditional word processing software. Yet in ZCubes, you can also make a wide range of less conventional choices.

In addition to the usual blank page, you can select from a variety of more esoteric online “papers,” including sticky notes and school-ruled lined paper, for instance. In addition, you can make your keyboard input appear in either an ordinary typeface or cursive “handwriting” on the page.

Beyond producing text directly in ZCubes, you can drag and drop text from either the desktop or the Web into a work area called ZSpace and then use ZEditor to format it. You can also integrate pictures, RSS feeds, audio and video into a document.

But some features are supported only on the IE browser, meaning that they aren't available for Linux. For example, although you can display simpler drawings and handwriting in Firefox, vector editing is available only through the IE browser. Safari and other browsers are not officially supported, but the HTML documents created and stored on ZCubes can be viewed in most browsers.

Aside from ZEditor, ZSlide, and Calci, additional applications in ZCubes include ZPaint; ZBrowser; Spider Browse; Blackboard/Whiteboard; ZAlbum; and ZPortal. (By the way, ZPaint lets you produce artwork by applying color options to either shapes in ZCubes or freehand sketches.)


ScribTeX is an online collaborative word processing environment for LaTeX, a macro-based document preparation geared to consistent formatting.

James Allen, the force behind ScribTeX, has openly acknowledged the influence of Google Docs on his word processor for LaTeX. Impressed by the capabilities in LaTeX for typesetting mathematical equations, Allen initially used his skills as a Ruby on Rails programmer to build a wiki centering on LaTeX.

“[But] I came to realize that the Web is filled with half-filled wikis and would benefit more from a Google Docs-type application where people could work privately, with a select group, or with the entire world,” Allen wrote online.

As it exists today, ScribTeX lets users create, upload, and edit LaTeX documents and automatically render them as PDF files. You can decide whether to keep your documents entirely private, extend viewing or editing rights to people you choose, or make the documents public. ScribTeX also keeps a complete revision history of all your files.

ScribTeX is available free of charge. But like other online word processing environments, it is an ongoing work in progress. A note on the ScribTeX site tells users that during March of this year, the ScribTeX server underwent “temporal weirdness.” Some document revisions made by users ended up dated in the future, “making them uneditable.”

The site was recently updated to allow user uploads of custom styles, as well as to permit the use of BibTeX for keeping track of bibliographical references and including them in LaTeX documents.

ScribTeX is built on open source code devised by Allen and known as “Mathwiki.” Users are able to access the code, and they are welcome to volunteer to help out with further development of ScribTeX.

What's Next?

In a future article, we'll take a look at some other promising online word processors, including AjaxWrite, picoWrite, and MonkeyTeX, a LaTeX environment that competes with ScribTeX.