Eventually, all our writing may be done on the web in some fashion, and local editing will seem antiquated. I’ve used Google Docs and Spreadsheets (formerly Writerly) a good bit and enjoyed it. The biggest negative, as you might expect, is the absence of features I’ve grown used to in Word, such as footnotes, not something you would think is a negotiable feature. Nevertheless, the sharing aspects of Google Docs are excellent, and the ability to open a document from within Gmail is superb. It is designed to be seamless — at least, until you try to open a document with footnotes or complex formatting, then you get a very pale reflection of what is actually contained in the document. E.g., upon upload, footnotes are converted into things that look like links but don’t actually link to anything and appear to break the connection present in the original Word document. The lack of pdf import is a huge gap as well, and the fact that you can’t edit documents in Safari is annoying. (Though I just tried with Safari for Windows and everything seemed to work fine, so perhaps I’m behind the times on Safari support.) Ideally, I would be able to store, and edit, all my work documents, with full parity with Word and Powerpoint (which for better or worse are still the standards in Humanities disciplines). This is impossible for a couple of reasons: first, no footnotes, as mentioned above; second, no support for complex scripts on the Mac. By complex scripts I mean Unicode OpenType fonts that have combining diacritics. This may mean nothing to you, but it means a lot for all the Syriac specialists out there (among other kinds of specialists). While this is no doubt a small market, Microsoft has seen fit to include full OpenType support in Windows since Windows 2000. (Part of this was due to the Syriac community’s own initiative — but I’m just using Syriac as an example and don’t need to go into detail. Many other complex scripts are included in Windows.) The point is that Apple has refused to include full OpenType support for an embarrassingly long time. It was completely absent up to the release of Tiger, then was partially included mid-way through Tiger’s development cycle (supposedly fixing Hebrew, though I know folks who would say that Hebrew is still fundamentally broken in Mac OSX). Back to my original point — I can’t use Google Docs on a Mac, even if they have fixed Safari support, simply because the right font technology does not exist in the OS. Documents including Syriac written in Google Docs via a Windows browser do not show up properly in Mac OSX. So, the whole collaborative benefit to Google Docs evaporates.
Now Adobe has released Buzzword, which was developed by a company from the suburbs of Boston called Virtual Ubiquity. Adobe bought Virtual Ubiquity last year (see here and here). Buzzword is a flash-based word processor similar in many ways to Google Docs. It’s also beautiful. Adobe is definitely becoming more design conscious with their apps (Acrobat 8 is a good example), and I am immediately attracted to Buzzword through its look and feel. (By comparison Google Docs looks clunky and merely functional, not unlike Gmail’s aging interface.) There are a couple of head-scratchers, such as why I have to move my cursor all the way to the right to select a different formatting mode, then all the way back to the left to work with that mode. But, overall, it’s a great looking web app. So, what about my roadblocks above? Footnotes? Yep, well, not exactly. It has endnotes, but they’re very well integrated into the text. Everything is very simple and elegant. I tried to import a heavily footnoted document and was very pleased with the result — the footnotes were converted to endnotes and all the necessary linking between reference and endnote was retained. In fact, the reference in the text gives a visual cue when you mouse over it, which is a great Apple-esque touch. The included fonts are of a high quality (Minion Pro, Myriad Pro, Garamond Pro, etc.) — all Adobe standards which you would have to pay for otherwise (actually, I got Garamond Pro from registering Adobe CS2, so they’re not that hard to come by). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be Unicode support yet, even on Windows — all the Greek in the text I uploaded was turned into bullet points. And the same occurs when I try to type in Greek or Hebrew in a new document. Nevertheless, I’m very impressed with Buzzword, which has already surpassed Google Docs in the footnote arena. And, while I don’t have any inside information, it would seem to me that Unicode support is forthcoming (plus, OpenType I assume, since Adobe was one of the principal developers, along with Microsoft and, originally, Apple — for what it’s worth, OpenType is now an ISO standard).
For more information on the development of Buzzword, you can visit David Coletta’s blog The Joy of Flex, which I discovered earlier today and am pleased to note uses the same Wordpress theme this site.
PS There are other nice things about Buzzword, such as built-in commenting, but there are other gaps too, such as no pdf support (as with Google Docs — though you can export to pdf in the latter) and the inability to import or export to OpenDocument documents. Buzzword, however, supports the new .docx format, and Google Docs does not. The multiplicity of ways of viewing your documents in Buzzword is a marvelous feature and encourages the user to upload more.