Writely: Great changes, same paradox

Gary Edwards sees Nirvana in Google's Writely acquisition, an open data Pearl Harbor for Microsoft. But it's more of Google's personal information extraction infrastructure.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor

A religious epiphany encapsulated as a business transaction. That's the only explanationEdwards calls it Microsoft's Pearl Harbor, it looks more like Google's Trojan Horse to me. for Gary Edwards' raving endorsement of Google's acquisition of Writely in response to Dan Farber's comments on the deal. The only explanation I can see is that Edwards' work on the OpenDocument Format and XML has blinded him to the straightforward reality that Google will have access to everything created in Writely, furthering its penetration of personal privacy to include workgroup collaborations.

One things for sure. Google played the Internet card today. And it trumps everything in Redmond's aging arsenal... . On to Writely and why this is a day that will live in Redmond infamy. Writely lives on the Internet, in the same space as Google information, enabling mankind to collaboratively work with Wiki and Blog information. The collaboration is both human and machine in that when someone logs into a Writely document space, they do so riding high on their computational machines... . Our Internet ready XML desktop productivity environment has OpenOffice.org and Mozilla at it's core. The XML language this environment is so incredibly fluent in is that of OpenDocument, which is itself a wrapper of important Open XML technologies (HTML, XHTML, XForms, SVG, SMiL, CSS, XSLT, etc.) OpenDocument (ODF) is also a highly structured XML open standard now moving to embrace a universal metadata model based on a bridge between XML and RDF... .Writely is a masterpiece of an ODF AJAX engine, able to upload any OpenDocument file for collaborative work, publication, and/or distribution.

Edwards calls it Microsoft's Pearl Harbor, it looks more like Google's Trojan Horse to me. Like the rumored GDrive project, which hopes to store everyone's data on Google servers so it can be searched and the resulting information about personal interests used to target searches, Writely collaboration simply opens another window to people's lives.

Google calls the project "Lighthouse," as Phil Sim pointed out Google told analysts recently: "Another important implication of this theme is that storing 100% of a user’s data makes each piece of data more valuable because it can be access across applications. For example: a user’s Orkut profile has more value when it’s accessible from Gmail (as addressbook), Lighthouse (as access list), etc."

Right off, let me point out that the company, Writely, says there will be no advertising  on Writely documents. But that's  a marketer's answer to a misdirected question. Google collects massive amounts of information to target ads. Documents created in Writely will be exposed to the same data harvesting, so that Writely users will be targeted in other settings based on their work in Writely documents.

There are two problems with that scenario, even if one thinks that's a fair trade of personal data for software functionality: 1.) Workgroup documents will be accessible to government subpeona, as we already know Google user profiles have been targeted by the Department of Justice, and; 2.) Searches that return results based on auctioned placements of ads are not objective, creating situations where documents could be fouled by arbitrarily discovered information.

Back to the question celebrated by Gary Edwards, is this "more open" than the Microsoft world where, absolutely, Microsoft's Office and Back Office software came with plenty of proprietary hooks, but, at least, your data stayed firmly in your possession. XML and metadata do add tremendous value to our work, there's no doubt about that, and even Microsoft has made concessions to this reality by supporting XML output in Word, Excel and other applications.

It's painfully clear that users are being confronted with a different monolithic question than when they consider using Microsoft software, but a monolithic question nevertheless. Google offers "free" and "open" software as services in exchange for ever-increasing disclosure of personal information, with Writely that information is exposed even before it is published to the world, even as it is created. There's no option to turn off the Google microscope poised over your shoulder. Is all that exposure worth the $300 you might pay for a desktop application or hosted service that offered complete security for your information?

There are a lot of better ways to get documents that support XML, OpenDoc, and other metadata-enabling formats, if you ask me. I'm suspicious that Edwards and others celebrating the Writely acquisition as a victory for open data have become blind to the erosion of privacy that comes with a Google-hosted service. I'll pass on the religious fervor, thanks.

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