After a while asking around, I finally get an invite to join Writely, the thin client Ajax word processor that Google bought. It's nominally in closed beta, but as with Gmail you can ponce an invite off anyone who's already in – you get fifty when you join, but unlike Gmail those don't seem to be refreshed. I'm down to forty now. Works with Firefox and IE but not, I'm told, with Safari.
It's a nice little application for documents up to a few thousand words long, a bit posher than Wordpad but not much. It's got justification, font formatting, spell checker, word count and a bit of indenting cleverness, but nothing like footnotes, outlining or picture embedding. You can nominate a list of collaborators for a particular document, email in docs (but not email them out again), save in various formats such as HTML, ODF, Word, but not plain text or RTF. There's PDF, but that's marked rather hilariously as 'Premium/$'. Works for free at the moment, mind. You can also export your document to a blog.
I've been using it a lot more than I expected, mostly because it's a very convenient way to keep notes and to shuttle documents between home, work and the various other places I end up. Sometimes I can have an idea for a column at home and it ends up being emailed between there and the office three or four times over a couple of weeks before I finally nail the lid on the coffin. With Writely, I just bash the idea plus research notes into the browser, picking up wherever I find myself with more to add or a few minutes to spend. No transfers, no pulling it out of the ever growing list of inbox clutter, no messing around with versions. And it autosaves about once ever three minutes, so you can get away with being struck by lightning.
As for the online slowness: it's Ajax, so you don't really notice. It feels like a local edit, because mostly it is. As a mechanism for bashing out articles, it works just fine – and I've written about half my output this week in it already.
There's one little feature that's not really part of the application itself but deserves to be more widely known – the Beta Meter. This is an icon that displays a percentage – currently 62 – and when you click on it, it asks you whether the product is ready to be launched yet. Vote yes or no: when the meter reaches 100 percent "although we realise that it's popular to leave products in beta forever" then it's launch time.
What does it need before prime time? Internationalisation, certainly, and better email integration. I haven't hit any bugs yet, but I haven't worked with big documents or tried importing complex stuff. It's useful as it stands, but you can bet your last megabit that people will be trying to make it do things that no sane developer would ever consider. I hope Writely's new Google overlords are giving them plenty of advice about what happens when you give stuff away to the ingrates out here.