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New Web Tools for Writers

New web-based processors are popping up everywhere. Do they work as well as Microsoft Word? What do you get? What's missing? Laurie Rowell takes a look.
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The web has recently offered up some fabulous goodies to the writer in us all. For those of you not closely in touch with your inner scribe, let me explain that we writers tend to be a greedy lot, difficult to please and inclined to expect miracles for free. As just this sort, I was surprised to find that these tools offer plenty of good stuff for writers now and buckets of promise for even more utility down the path.

A few key points to consider before launching into a new product:

  • Most of these packages are in development, so be prepared to deal with bugs. They’re also free, so I find I’m more forgiving, but go with your own comfort level. With my knack for breaking things, I found many a soft spot.
  • There are plenty of claims about security bouncing around on these sites, but these claims often center on issues of preventing others from getting into your documents. What makes me nervous is the way these word processors store docs on their servers. Now, I’m not saying your work isn’t safer on their servers than on your own, but if I had a file that was important to me, I’d keep a local copy, too. Years back, a major provider lost my whole email account with all its archived mail, including the last letter my mother ever wrote me. But you probably have friends with whom you can swap such horror tales of lost files. (If not, just tap the shoulder of the average geek-on-the-street.)
  • These applications are not about to replace Microsoft Word for professional work—at least, not this week. On the other hand, if you’re tossing together a low-budget system for a nonprofit after-school program or your Aunt Bessie (who doesn’t believe she could use a computer and doesn’t want to spend any $$$), these products might soon be good enough to meet basic word-processing needs.
  • Web applications offer real promise for collaboration. Anyone whom you specify can access a file that you’ve posted, reviewing or making changes without the security concerns that attend email attachments.
  • These tools afford a peculiar privacy. For example, you might not want to save those drafts of your soon-to-be-award-winning poetry in the Word files of the very public computer sitting on your corporate desk at the office—not to mention that letter you’re composing to the jerk whose clothes you threw out the window into the courtyard last week. But these web word processors offer a fast, easy solution to such on-the-coffee-break bursts of creativity.

With all of this information in mind, I put three of these apps through their paces. What I wanted to know was how well they could substitute for Microsoft Word (which I used as a benchmark), how useful they were for collaboration, and what other extras they offered.

Zoho Writer

According to the web site, Zoho Writer is a full word processor in the alpha stage. First boom out of the cannon I tried to import a Word file, and omigosh it was easy! The file slipped into place in an easy-to-understand user interface. I was able to implement several word-processing features to make corrections and additions, and to send the file out for collaboration. I was pretty charmed, I can tell you.

The next day I was less charmed. My file was a mess. For some reason, Zoho Writer had replaced double quotation marks and apostrophes from the original file with a question mark. The result looked like a Spanish catechism (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 Sample short story file saved and reopened in Zoho Writer.

You might have noticed that the quotation marks at the end of the passage in Figure 1 are still intact. That’s because I composed that sentence in Zoho Writer and saved it there. Only the imported punctuation made this bizarre transmogrification.

But hey, this is an alpha version. I’d give them time to perfect the product before trusting anything more than the roughest draft to it. This is a highly temperamental app, and features sometimes work well—but sometimes don’t.

Collaboration was not intuitive, although easier than in Word. You can set up documents to share as read-only or read/write, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2 In Zoho Writer, you can share a document with the public.

Thing is, you want to be careful. See the check box at the bottom that you want to click? It’s the one giving your collaborator read/write access. Much of the time, you’ll be offering that option, right? Now see the check box at the top? It shares your document with all the wide world and his pet guppy. You do not want to click the wrong check box by accident. Bear in mind that I’m finicky and easy to confuse, but a glance at the posted public documents on this site suggests some may have already shared their private work unintentionally.

On the plus side, if one collaborator is editing the document, others are locked out and notified about why they can’t access the text.

On balance, I’d have to say that Zoho Writer is a gutsy endeavor, but it hasn’t yet escaped from Bugtopia enough to be serviceable.

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