Writely or wrongly

Google has opened its online word processor for public testing. The writing's on the wall — but for whom?

Whatever Web 2.0 might turn out be — if anything — it has already spawned its own, slightly new-age vocabulary. There is much talk of goodness and love, as in: this weekend Writely got some Googlelove and now online editing goodness is free to all.

Translated, that means Google has taken its online word processor out of semi-closed testing and made it available to anyone who wants to sign up. Previously, it existed in the shadow world of word-of-mouth invite only — where, oddly, its much more established sibling Gmail still lives.

Cue much cheering from the oppressed masses. Not that everyone will feel the love. Microsoft is the comedy villain of the piece, throwing its cloak around itself and spitting "Curse you, Google!" as it slinks away into the darkness, beaten once again to the punch.

If only it were that simple. Perversely, Writely may do more harm to the cause of Web 2.0 than good. Google's twin policies of eternal betas and top-secret roadmaps may keep the competition guessing, but it also has a chilling effect on the rest of the market. It will be very hard to raise venture capital for anything that may be seen as a direct competitor, and equally hard to show that your bright idea for online working is anything but.

There are already good online office applications in development, such as thinkfree — more advanced and feature-rich than Google's unintegrated mix of spreadsheet, calendaring and word processing but getting a tenth of the attention. That diffidence will stunt innovation — and true innovation is in short supply.

For Web 2.0 office applications to be true competitors to the established order, they must do far more. Security and manageability are key: the enterprise demands that off-site data is encrypted securely and centrally controlled. Likewise, until we get proper universal connectivity there must be seamless integration between online and offline working that combines the best aspects of both while eliminating the worst. There are hard problems here, and we're a long way from solving them with Writely.

All of the above defines a market that remains open for exploitation by a determined, well-funded and far-sighted company. That could even be Microsoft. The window's still open for it to demonstrate that it can shrug off its creative paralysis and do better than the mess it's making of Live and Vista.

Until Google says where it's going and when it's getting there, the online applications market is up for grabs. Dribbling out half-formed betas is no answer: it is short sighted, selfish and ultimately self defeating. Love and goodness are nice: now let's see courage, vision and fair play.

 

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