Category Archives: writely

google buys writely, or, the book is reading you, part 2

Last week Google bought Upstartle, a small company that created an online word processing program called Writely. writelylogo.gif Writely is like a stripped-down Microsoft Word, with the crucial difference that it exists entirely online, allowing you to write, edit, publish and store documents (individually or in collaboration with others) on the network without being tied to any particular machine or copy of a program. This evidently confirms the much speculated-about Google office suite with Writely and Gmail as cornerstone, and presumably has Bill Gates shitting bricks .
Back in January, I noted that Google requires you to be logged in with a Google ID to access full page views of copyrighted works in its Book Search service. Which gave me the eerie feeling that the books are reading us: capturing our clickstreams, keywords, zip codes even — and, of course, all the pages we’ve traversed. This isn’t necessarily a new thing. Amazon has been doing it for a while and has built a sophisticated personalized recommendation system out of it — a serendipity engine that makes up for some of the lost pleasures of browsing a physical store. There it seems fairly harmless, useful actually, though it depends on who you ask (my mother says it gives her the willies). Gmail is what has me spooked. The constant sprinkle of contextual ads in the margin attaching like barnacles to my bot-scoured correspondences. Google’s acquisition of Writely suggests that things will only get spookier.
I’ve been a webmail user for the past several years, and more recently a blogger (which is a sort of online word processing) but I’m uneasy about what the Writely-Google union portends — about moving the bulk of my creative output into a surveilled space where the actual content of what I’m working on becomes an asset of the private company that supplies the tools.
Imagine you’re writing your opus and ads, drawn from words and themes in your work, are popping up in the periphery. Or the program senses line breaks resembling verse, and you get solicited for publication — before you’ve even finished writing — in one of those suckers’ poetry anthologies. logo20.jpg Leave the cursor blinking too long on a blank page and it starts advertising cures for writers’ block. Copy from a copyrighted source and Writely orders you to cease and desist after matching your text in a unique character string database. Write an essay about terrorists and child pornographers and you find yourself flagged.
Reading and writing migrated to the computer, and now the computer — all except the basic hardware — is migrating to the network. We here at the institute talk about this as the dawn of the networked book, and we have open source software in development that will enable the writing of this new sort of born-digital book (online word processing being just part of it). But in many cases, the networked book will live in an increasingly commercial context, tattooed and watermarked (like our clothing) with a dozen bubbly logos and scoured by a million mechanical eyes.
Suddenly, that smarmy little paper clip character always popping up in Microsoft Word doesn’t seem quite so bad. Annoying as he is, at least he has an off switch. And at least he’s not taking your words and throwing them back at you as advertisements — re-writing you, as it were. Forgive me if I sound a bit paranoid — I’m just trying to underscore the privacy issues. Like a frog in a pot of slowly heating water, we don’t really notice until it’s too late that things are rising to a boil. Then again, being highly adaptive creatures, we’ll more likely get accustomed to this softer standard of privacy and learn to withstand the heat — or simply not be bothered at all.

hmmm… online word processing

Not quite sure what I think of this new web-based word processor, Writely. Cute Web 2.0ish name, “beta” to the hilt. It’s free and quite easy to get started. I guess it falls into that weird zone of transitional unease between desktop computing and the wide open web, where more and more of our identity and information resides. Some of the tech specifics: Writely saves documents in Word and (as of today) Open Office formats, outputs as RSS and to some blogging platforms (not ours), and can also be saved as a simple web page (here’s the Writely version of this post). A key feature is that Writely documents can be written and edited by multiple authors, like SubEthaEdit only totally net-based. It feels more or less like a disembodied text editor for a wiki.
I’m trying to think about what’s different about writing online. Movable Type, our blogging software, is essentially an ultra-stripped-down text editor — web-based — and it’s no fun to work in. That’s partly because the text field is about the size of a mail slot, but writing online can be annoying for other reasons, chief among them the fact that you have to be online to work, and second that you are susceptible to the chance mishaps of the browser (accidentally backing up and losing everything, it crashes, you forgot to pay Time Warner and they turn off the web etc.). But with a conventional word processor you’re vulnerable to the mishaps of the machine (hard drive dies and you didn’t back it up, it crashes and you didn’t save, coffee spills…). Writely saves everything automatically as you go, maintaining a revision history and tracking changes — a very nice feature.
They say this is the future of software, at least for the simple everyday kind of stuff: web-based tool suites and tons of online data storage. I guess it’s nice not having to be tied to one machine. Your work is just out there, waiting for you to log in. But then again, your work is just out there…