Big news: Google has just bought Upstartle, the owner of Writely. Writely is basically an online word processor that looks and feels pretty much like Microsoft Word. You can create, edit, and format documents, as well as upload and download documents from your PC. The biggest single advantage is that anyone you choose can also edit the document, instantly creating a simple, powerful collaborative spaces. For a while now, when people have talked to me about wikis, I’ve pointed them to Writely as the next step beyond. Wikis were the original collaborative documents, allowing multiple people to make changes online. Writely and its peers take it to the next level in allowing the same level of collaboration, with in addition all the interfaces and functionality you expect from a normal desktop application.
Google’s move – once the beta software is developed further, scaled, and integrated into some of Google’s other product offerings – is to confront Microsoft head on. If you want word processing software, you will be able to buy a shrink-wrap product from Microsoft, or get a very-likely free (advertising-supported) version from Google that has the same functionality, with full collaborative features and anywhere-anytime access as well. However, people have not paid a lot of attention to date on Microsoft’s (also beta) Live suite of products, which represents their initial efforts to get into exactly the same space. Dean Collins thinks that this means Microsoft will trample Google. Rather than calling winners, we can certainly say that office applications will gradually become significantly – and eventually primarily – an online space. The potential for collaboration will be unleashed as these applications become broadly available and easy to use, and some will look back on the old days of desktop applications as antiquated. The game is under way.