AJAX: The Way Word Processing Will Be

Our Executive Tech columnist predicts big changes in the world of group document editing, thanks to AJAX.
It's always exciting to see a new technology that will forever change the way we work. AJAX is the new, new thing that's doing just that -- and word processing is the place where you may feel the impact the most.

I wrote last week about InetWord, an online word processor that strives to make Microsoft Office documents as easy to edit in a browser as they are today on a desktop PC. But InetWord faces strong competition. Some of the other contenders are farther along in certain aspects of browser enhancements.

AJAX Makes Editing Fun Again

AJAX is an acronym for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML. It's not a technology product but a set of programming techniques. A Web page written using AJAX can respond almost instantly to end users, without forcing a noticeable delay while information is sent back to a central server.

The term AJAX was defined earlier this year by Jesse James Garrett, a founder of the consulting firm Adaptive Path. Some big projects that use the AJAX techniques include Google Maps, the Flickr photo-sharing site, and Amazon.com's A9 search engine.

These sites are impressive. But I believe the biggest upheaval AJAX will cause will be new powers in word processing, especially for documents that different people must write, edit, and approve. Consider the steps that an important company document must now go through:

Writing. The original creator of a document may place the first draft on a company server and then notify everyone by e-mail that the document is ready for comment.

Editing. In old-style computer systems, only one person at a time may edit or leave comments in the draft document, or risk overwriting something that another person tried to change at the same time.

Approving. If one person is authorized to approve edits to the document, that person must find the changes made by all group members and knit them into a coherent final draft. This includes changes that may have been proposed via e-mail or other forms of communication.

To be sure, Microsoft Word has long enabled co-workers to insert comments into draft documents. And collaborative environments such as Microsoft's SharePoint Services are making possible "shared workspaces" so multiple individuals can simultaneously edit documents safely.

None of these methods, however, are as simple to set up as a standard Web browser, which can quickly access a file from anywhere in the world. That's the promise that AJAX brings to the party.

Word Processing The Writely Way

As I wrote last week, InetWord is a Web-based way to efficiently edit HTML files and office documents. This capability, however, currently works only in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Support for the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and other browsers is not expected until InetWord's developers write extensions of their code for those platforms.

One of InetWord's most serious competitors is another AJAX tool named Writely. This browser-based word processor is being developed by Upstartle LLC, a Portola Valley, Calif., venture headed by three former developers for such companies as Macromedia, Claris, and Intuit.

Writely already supports Firefox 1.0.6+ and Mozilla Suite 1.4+ -- both for Mac and Windows -- as well as IE 5.5 and higher for Windows. The service is also expected to run within the Opera browser and Apple's built-in Safari browser as soon as those applications add support for "design mode," a programming platform that other browsers already offer.

In its current beta stage, Writely allows anyone to register for a free account and start uploading files. The document's creator can give editing privileges to any number of other people. The service is optimized for editing HTML files, but you can also upload Microsoft Word and OpenOffice files, which are converted on the fly into HTML format.

Best of all, editing by multiple individuals is supported by Writely in real-time. There's no risk that edits made by one person can wipe out the changes made by another. You can see the names of other authorized people who are editing the document at the same time that you are. And, in the rare case that two people try to edit the same word at the same time, one person sees a message about the problem but can keep working.

"One of you loses 10 seconds of work," Writely co-founder Sam Schillace said in a telephone interview. That's how often Writely asynchronously posts changes back to its central server, a process that doesn't interrupt the user. Having to type a word over every once in a while is a small inconvenience, compared with the ability to collaborate on documents with as many people as you like.

The Power Of Simultaneous Editing

InetWord developer Tom Synder acknowledges that Writely is taking a broader approach. "Theirs is a much more focused effort on dynamic collaboration," he says of Writely. "The most common use [of InetWord] is to share the document with yourself." Hosting a file on InetWord allows the user to edit it from different locations or using different PCs. Snyder points to InetWord's Word-like features, such as its support for custom paragraph styles and table borders, which he says Writely lacks.

Writely's developers say they respect the capabilities of Microsoft Word, but they aren't trying to duplicate it. "We see our relationship [to Word] like that of Hotmail to Outlook," says Schillace. "Hotmail didn't replace Outlook." Instead, Hotmail makes it possible for people to check their e-mail using any browser, even while Outlook remains their main e-mail program at work.

Upstartle plans to add features to Writely, such as different approver-creator permissions, in a future paid version. In the meantime, the beta program has managed to attract "tens of thousands" of users, Schillace says.

AJAX Rewrites Older Edit Apps

Application developers who are selling computerized editing solutions are being forced to adapt to the promise of AJAX or lose their competitive positions. One product that's making the switch is CMS400.NET, a content-management system from Ektron Inc. of Amherst, N.H.

CMS400.NET is a suite of programs that companies typically install on corporate servers for use by several different employees. The suite costs $7,200 for 10 users or $28,800 for an enterprise-wide license, according to David Aponovich, Ektron's director of marketing.

Even a locally hosted product such as this gains benefits from the asynchronous approach. "We started using AJAX about a year ago," COO Ed Rogers said in a telephone interview. For example, CMS400.NET uses drag-and-drop folders in part of its interface. "To improve performance, we ended up building these folder objects using AJAX," Rogers says.

The company is planning major code revisions to take advantage of the speed and convenience of AJAX. "We'll have a significant release at the end of the first quarter of 2006, version 6.0, and it will be complete by the end of the 3rd quarter, version 6.1," according to Rogers.


If you work with other people to create, edit, and approve documents, Web-based applications like Writely now offer an alternative to in-house content-management systems. Writely's HTML-oriented word processor won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it can be a huge time-saver -- especially for documents that are ultimately destined to be posted on a Web site or blog.

The days when Web browsers made you wait just to update the screen are ending. In our brave new browsers, a Web page can be just as responsive as any program you run on your PC.

More information about Writely is available at Writely.com. Details on CMS400.NET are at Ektron.com.

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