Buzzword, The First Real Word Processor for the Web

Posted by Matthew Murphy on Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

I’m not writing in my usual text editor today. Today, I’m writing in the web’s first real word processor. At least, that is what the team at Virtual Ubiquity has to say about their partially unveiled masterpiece. They’ve also chosen what is quite possibly the perfect name for a supposedly ground breaking and much-hyped word processing application: Buzzword.

When I first came across Buzzword in early July, I didn’t get it. I wasn’t the only one. Throughout the blogosphere, people knew that it was something to watch, they knew it was important, but they weren’t quite sure why. Feeling like a bit like character in a Dan Brown novel, and aided by Virtual Ubiquity’s blog, I set out to crack the code. What I learned is that it all comes down to WYSIWYG. Specifically, it comes down to what-you-see-is-what-you-get vs. what-you-see-is-what-your-printer-spits-out.

Most online text editors come equipped with WYSIWYG controls. For example, using Google Docs & Spreadsheets you can highlight, format, or bullet your text. You can add shapes and pictures to your document. You can share that document with a family member or coworker in another time zone with little effort. When they (or you) print that document, much of your page layout gets zapped. Google Docs is not the place to print your final sales proposal from.

With Buzzword, it’s WYSIWYP. (That “P” is for “print”.) Virtual Ubiquity recognized that there is more to a document than the words. In many cases, the appeal of the printed page, determined by careful layout, is as valuable as the text. Much of the problem arises because HTML is just not built to handle page layout gracefully. To get around this, Buzzword is built using Adobe Flash. Not only does this get around the limitations of other web-based editors, but thanks to Adobe AIR, Buzzword will be able to move on to your desktop while retaining all of it’s web-based functionality.

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Although Buzzword claims to be the first of its kind, it sports a comfortable and familiar feature set. Like any good editor, it allows you to format your text, change your font, or insert pictures. Buzzword also offers document sharing, revisioning, and the ability to export your documents to Microsoft Word. And anyone who cheated and looked up the word ubiquity will have already guessed that your documents are stored online and available from anywhere.

I found that using Buzzword is a lot like using Microsoft Word, minus most of the advanced features. (You know, the ones that fill the drop down menus so you can’t find the features you actually need.) In other words, the layout is pretty standard and getting started is easy. Like most desktop applications, you’ve got text menus at the top of the screen and an icon-based menu for common tasks below that. If you’re not sure what an icon is for, chances are that if you hover over it for long enough a descriptive label will slide out smoothly from behind the scenes. Many keyboard shortcuts commonly found in desktop applications are included in Buzzword as well. For example, punching Ctrl-S while working in Buzzword will save the open document and Ctrl-B will make text bold.

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As I mentioned, I am writing today’s review using Buzzword, and I would say that it’s going quite well. The application has been stable and the response has been smooth and speedy. (I’m using Firefox and can’t vouch for Internet Explorer. If you IE users find something quirky, you could always make the switch to Firefox!) I got used to the interface very quickly, but there is a small learning curve if you’ve never used anything but Microsoft products. Virtual Ubiquity really did a fantastic job on the interface. It manages to be attractive and functional in equal measure.

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To be fair, we’re not even at a public release yet, but I feel there are a few features missing from Buzzword. I would really like to see this application open documents in tabs similar to Zoho Writer. I rarely am writing in one document at a time. (Who works linearly now anyway?) Also, in addition to it’s sharing and collaboration toolset, I’d like to be able to post a document directly to a blog. I can’t say that I had any real issues with the design and the application feels functionally complete. According to their blog, Virtual Ubiquity is working on licensing additional fonts, but serious typographers may cringe at the current limited selection.

The technology is of slight concern in that it limits the audience. The Buzzword team makes the assumption that recent versions of Flash are pervasive among today’s browsers. While this may be true of one of their target markets, students, I don’t believe that recent versions of Flash are as, well, ubiquitous among their other market, the mobile workforce. Many companies lock down corporate laptops, install software by imaging, and load a version of IE that has minimal functionality and is probably 3-5 years behind the current version. I, for example, cannot use Buzzword on my corporate machine for the same reasons. Unless a user’s IT department gets involved, this may limit the adoption of an otherwise solid application.

In the end, I’ve totally enjoyed using Buzzword. I think the interface is fantastic, to the point that I will now find using Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Zoho Writer to be cumbersome. I also like the familiar keyboard shortcuts. Buzzword does as promised, and my documents print exactly as they appear on screen. The team at Virtual Ubiquity seems to have found a niche in documents printed from the web and are well on their way towards setting the de facto standard for future entrants into their market. Buzzword is, indeed, a true word processor for the web.