I’ve had access to Buzzword for a while now, so I think it’s just about time for a review. First of all thanks to the guys at Virtual Ubiquity for the invite and the permission to post this.
Disclaimer: This post speaks only of the preview version of Buzzword, so things may have already been added that might be considered missing at present and it doesn’t reflect the final product.
I think the easiest way to do this is to break things down into some topics to see how it measures up and also what I like about it. But first, a screenshot (click to view fullsize).
So the obvious comparisons are Word/OpenOffice and Google Docs. For most people Word has several thousand features that they don’t use, so it’s not about having to imitate all of Word’s features in order to serve a purpose. Having said that the feature set is ample for a lot of document editing tasks and I didn’t find it lacking, although polishing some existing features would be good here to allow greater control over how the document looks. We are still giving feedback on little things that would make it better, such as H1, H2 buttons and other more semantic additions, but overall the application is solid and doesn’t limit you in what you are trying to document.
Google Docs on the other hand is a lot more basic than Buzzword, however I have still used it a lot in cases where I didn’t care about the look of a document, I just wanted to have it backed up offsite and be able to share it with others for editing. Buzzword has a share option, hopefully in the future that will allow for multiple simultaneous editors as this would make it an easy choice for me to use that instead. One thing Google Docs does have is a suite of tools to open spreadsheets etc. I imagine that might be in Virtual Ubiquity’s plans for the future, but rightly so they’ve targeted the most common “office” task for their immediate plans, and Buzzword does support tables, so presenting data in a tabular structure is still possible if that is what you want to do.
I’ve seen a great many Flex applications that just have me hitting the back button as fast as possible because they are managing to kill my dual-core 2.4ghz. Thankfully Buzzword is fast enough for it not to give you that sluggish feeling. I think that’s more to do with the designers keeping things simple and not using a myriad of controls on screen at all times. I hope they keep on in this way because it makes for a good user experience which is something a lot of online apps seem to have low down in their list of priorities. The document portion of the UI is obviously very custom and as a result it reacts very responsively, I’m guessing they decided not to try and hack and extend existing components, and that really pays off, it will keep up with your typing and selecting as fast as you would normally want to work.
This is probably one area that is low on the list of priorities for now but will come later. I’d like to be able to export to PDF for manual sharing of documents (you can share via email and have them come straight to the app, but I might want to create a version, customise it and send it off as a PDF). Another must have would be Word and ODF import/export. This has been mentioned so I don’t think I need to say any more on the topic.
For me there is one thing that trumps almost all features they could add, and that is to keep it easy to access. It is already easy to use, but what I’m talking about here is how you go about your daily work. If you have to perform several steps to open the application and start a new document you’re onto a loser. You need to make it easy for people to come back and start where they left off. This can be done in many ways, for example the reason I think Facebook is going to overtake MySpace this year is the way it makes you keep coming back by using meaningful and purposeful emails. I’d suggest using OpenID for this reason, Word doesn’t ask me to login after I’ve already logged into my computer once (if at all) so I don’t expect my online document editor to do that either. Perhaps it’s just because I’m someone that regularly clears my cache, but it might be a good option to use Flash cookies to store the username and password, and then using Buzzword would be as simple as hitting a bookmark.
One thing Buzzword does very well in this category is auto-save. Something that in my opinion is even more essential in an application that runs in a browser tab. It’s far too easy to close a browser tab or have something crash the browser elsewhere. In fact this happened to me today. But I restarted Firefox with the “restore session” option and Buzzword had already saved my doc so I lose nothing.
Buzzword is one of those applications that screams to be made into an AIR/Apollo application, so fingers crossed that is taking place. The reason for this is offline document storage. If you can’t access your documents you may as well have not made one. I’m thinking the online version could use Google Gears, the desktop version use AIR/Apollo and have the Buzzword server auto-sync between the two whenever they go online.
I’d recommend you give it a good try as soon as it is available, there really isn’t a learning curve if you are using word processing apps already. I’m looking forward to seeing how Buzzword develops. If they nail those integration tasks then it will definitely become part of my bookmarks toolbar for creating and editing documents for myself or to share with colleagues.