Writely is a cross-browser (except Safari for some reason), AJAX, collaborative, tag-enabled wordprocessor. It’s pretty fantastic from what I’ve seen so far, and opens the door for a pile of similar products. I would imagine we’ll see a browser-based Microsoft Office within a year.
On reflection, the thing I really like about this is that it unbuckles documents and applications from individual computers – so rather than lug my laptop everywhere I go, in the future perhaps I’ll just log in to my applications from terminals at my destination. The only thing missing is a standard way for all these elements – web applications, web storage, your e-portfolio – to talk to each other. For example, there might be a standard for areas of storage space, which the word processor might use to save your document. There might be another one for aggregating tagged documents from all over the place and adding them to your portfolio. Perhaps everyone would authenticate using a generalised system like OpenID. Each application would be on a different server, your storage space would be on another server again – effectively your computer would now be a cloud of applications and data spanning continents.
Which is all well and good, but I wouldn’t say no to a local backup. One of the nice things about having everything on one computer is that you own it: once an application has made it from CD to hard disk, you dictate how it’s going to be used. Similarly for data files. If everything’s on a network, on computers owned by companies rather than individuals, rights issues start getting fuzzier. Do I really want people snooping my data, or disabling parts of my applications depending on where or who I am? No, but that’s a real possibility. Even with e-portfolios, the key really has to be your ability to own your space outside the context of the application that created it. (I say this while being completely aware that Elgg doesn’t quite do this yet.)
I’m not happy about centralised systems in general, and I think as more and more applications spread to the web, there’s probably something to be said for a personalised web server with back-end database – not for sharing pages with the world, although that’s useful too, but for downloading platform-independent applications and running them wherever you want. When this happens it’s not just a case of heading over to writely.com if you want to do some word processing; you can load your data there, but you can also load it into six thousand other word processor installs on the Internet, or the one on your local notebook. But who will write such a platform when it’s so much more profitable to make everyone go to the same place?