More and more I find that ideas occur to me and the need to write calls to me when I am on a computer, but not necessarily my main personal machine. What all of the machines I might be sitting at have though is a web browser. From there I can check my main, search the Internet, and most importantly, access a web based word processor. There are quite a few options when it comes to web based writing, and I decided to take a look at the major ones so I could find the one most suited to my needs.
First though we need to mention the machine-based Microsoft Word. Yes, I know that the native MS Word is not an online tool, but let’s face it, Word is the standard. I am not going to say it is the best or the brightest, but it is the word processor that almost all people cut their teeth on. Because it is what we learned on, and because it is the industry standard for document submission, and because most people have a copy of it already on the computer, like it or not Word is what we judge everything else from. Sure I would love to turn off 90% of it off for my daily use, but when I need those extra features it is really nice to have them around. So this is what we will be judging against.
Since this is a much different product to MS Word that runs directly on the machine, I wanted to test this out and see what is or isn’t available. I really don’t care too much about all the layout tools because what I am trying to do is write, not do pretty publication.
The product looks very nice, but there are unfortunately a few features missing that are very important to me. I was about to say that word count was missing, but then I found it. It was just hiding down there in the bottom left corner. This is symptomatic of Microsoft – things you need are just too darn hidden. On the other hand, a grammar checker doesn’t exist. Some might not like having a program watch over their grammar for them, but I find it is very useful in catching wild misspellings and also pointing out some blatant wording blunders. I can always ignore it if I like, but I do like having it available. A spelling checker is available, but grammar is not.
There are headers and footers available, as well as page numbers, tables, images, hyperlinks, and all that stuff. However, none of that would I really use in my daily writing. But at least the features are there.
In operation it is actually quite comfortable to write in, and with the push of a button it will open my local copy of Word and I can keep on working. And since the document is stored in my SkyDrive account that is synced up on my numerous computers, it is backed up and available everywhere. I can even use it on my iPad. I will also say that to Microsoft’s credit the web-based writing is very fluid. I have not experienced any of the odd freezes or lags that I have seen in other software. Not bad. Not bad at all.
And now on to Google Apps.
I have to admit a fondness for Google Apps. That fondness doesn’t come because they are so great, but because they are free and very available. So many folks have Google accounts these days, and the Google applications come free with that account, so they are basically becoming ubiquitous. When I first started using them, way back in the dawn of Internet time the Google applications had some severe drawbacks. These drawbacks ranged from missing features to flakey behavior. I used the apps but I didn’t trust them nor put my faith in them. Now I find myself using them almost by default.
From a features standpoint, the word processor is lacking when compared to the Microsoft desktop application, but is nicely ahead of the Office 365 web-based instance. While it still doesn’t have a grammar checker, the Google application does add such useful features at footnotes, extensive table management, and scripting. There are also drawing tools, an equation editor, table of content generation, and research tools. Again, these really don’t come into play with my personal writing, but they may be handy for some folks.
Another feature that I really like is the ability to share or publish the documents I am working on. While sharing is available in Office 365, I find the sharing and publishing in Google Docs just works a bit better. Oh, and I do use those features for collaboration, review, and feedback. Unfortunately these online products do not have the ability to track revisions like the machine based MS Word.
I would not have originally thought that the “Open with Word” button on Office 365 online was such a big deal, but when you need to do that extra task, such as grammar checking, that doesn’t exist online, it really can be advantageous. With Google Docs, as well as with the MS product on the Mac, I have to download the document and then open it up, do my work, and then remember to transfer it back up to the web. This leaves the possibility of multiple versions with changes out of sync. Not a huge thing, but enough to make me worry.
Now this may be one you haven’t heard of. Zoho offers a complete set of online tools that are really aimed at businesses. And when I say complete, I mean complete. From word processing and spreadsheets to invoicing, contact management, and databases, Zoho covers all their basis. I have been using their invoicing application for years and simply love it.
While you may not have heard much about their products, that doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful. In fact, for sheer number of features I would say that the word processing application in Zoho Office trumps all the other. Again, it doesn’t offer a grammar checker, but it has nearly everything else. From footnotes and end-notes to equations, document sharing, and even mail-merge, it is all there. The layout of the program is very easy to use too. There are tabs as in Microsoft Office, but for some reason I find them more intuitive to use. They are kind of a happy mixture of the tabs of Office and the menus of Google apps.
So what is the problem with Zoho? I really don’t know. I guess it is just that since I am not always in the Zoho system it takes an extra effort to jump over there to work. The program doesn’t have the “Open in Word” functionality, but it seems of course that only Office 365 does.
I am adding this in here because I am an Apple fan boy. And because some people may wonder about it. But seriously it isn’t even close to the others. Like the machine based Pages, the cloud based version stresses formatting over writing tools. And unfortunately the iCloud application doesn’t even include basics like headers and footers. Simply put, this one really isn’t an option.
In the end then, what do I use to write my real documents? Well that depends. If I am writing a blog post, then I will often just type it directly in to WordPress. Since there are no formatting tools or other fancy add-ons, the WordPress interface helps me just stick to writing. But there is no grammar checker. And yes, I really like grammar checkers. So sometimes if I am writing in WP I will still copy and paste it over to the machine based MS Word, do a grammar check, and then paste it back over.
If I am working on “real” writing then I will normally use Scrivener. I love Scrivener for the its flexibility to hold parts and pieces, rearrange things, hold research, and everything else that makes writing both a pleasure and a pain. But again, I often find myself switching over to Word for a minute to check something.
I find myself using the online tools when I start writing while I am away from my main machine. This article is a case in point. I started this article in the web-based version of Word because I happened to be in it to look at something else. I then switched over to Google Apps and then to Zoho. So in the end, this write-up has been written in all of the online tools I have mentioned – except for Pages. They have all worked well, but as I near the end I find myself wondering why I don’t use Zoho more. It works very, very well. Basically it stays out of my way, and that is what I want out of any tool.
One thing I didn’t check is the performance of these tools on a tablet. I use an iPad, and when I write on it I always prefer a native app like Editorial for plain text or QuickOffice / Office² HD for viewing and editing DOC formatted documents.
In the end, if you want to use an online word processor you won’t go wrong with any of these. If you are already a big Microsoft user, then the Office online apps is probably a good bet for you. If you are squarely in the Google camp and maybe on a Mac or Linux machine, then the Google apps deserve a look. And finally, if you want a more complete set of tools, perhaps even running your entire small business online, then make sure to look at Zoho.
Have you used these or any other online writing tools? What have your results been, or did I skip over your favorite? Oh, and another question … do you like or are ok with the mixture of tech / non-tech / fiction and such on here? Or would you prefer the blog stick to one area? Please let me know!