Office Workspace: right for a writer?

Last week, I shared my incipient explorations of newer ways to store and access one’s writing projects. Specifically, I was looking at Microsoft’s Office Workspace. I said:

Office Live Workspace lets you keep your whole project in The Cloud, open it on any computer with Office installed, save it back to the Cloud, and go on with your happy day. No syncing needed, is my point.

I’ve been working with it more, and I’ve learned that what I said was true, but not complete information. I don’t think I’ll be using Workspace for my daily writing, and I’ll explain why.

First Some Background

If you use a single computer, you keep your documents there, work there, and hopefully you back up copies to a CD, separate drive, or online storage.

If you use two computers, as I do, you want them to have the same documents. You don’t want to open a story or something on your laptop, just to realize that the newer version is on the computer at home. So you have to keep them synced. There are ways to do that, either manually—which is difficult—or using a special program on both computers, or on a flash drive. I like Microsoft’s Windows Live Sync for this, though it does require a lot of attention.

The trend in technology now is to keep projects on neither computer, and not on a physical storage like a flash drive, but on the Internet. You keep your work out there – in The Cloud – work on it there, then leave it there.

Online applications like Google Docs are great for this, but in my opinion you can’t write a novel on Google Docs. It works well for small documents such as rough drafts, lists, spreadsheets, etc. But it’s not as robust as a full scale program like MS Word. And Office Workspace lets me save my project there, open it in Word, work using all of Word’s features, then save out there again.

This process should not be confused with online storage sites like the late Yahoo Briefcase. That required me to download the saved file, do my work on my hard drive, then upload the new version when I finished. That’s not actually working online.

So I was happy to find Workspace. And today I did my first field test – away from the stable and fast Internet and Wi-Fi in my home – as I met with a friend to discuss our projects over coffee.

My Field Test 

Having connected via customer wi-fi, I opened my documents from Workspace in MS Word and we discussed the project. Soon I saved the important changes, and we talked on. As our meeting drew near its end, I made a couple of insignificant changes and hit Save again. No dice. I was no longer connected to the Internet.

I tried to save it to my hard drive, but that didn’t work. When I lost connection, I lost access to the document that was really on a server, not on my computer. It didn’t disappear, so I could see it, but I couldn’t save it.

Sure I could have copied my text from the unsaved file, pasted it into a new text file, and saved that. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that Cloud Computing requires a stable connection to the Internet, and the Coffeehouse assclowns had disconnected me without so much as a bronx cheer.

(A page appeared in my browser, saying the coffeehouse was thoughtfully putting me on a time-out, so I could get some more coffee, and rejoin the human race. Or something to that effect. Very cute. I think that it’s time for people who provide connectivity to take their role a little more seriously. I’m workin’ here, don’t fool with me if you want me back.)

None of this points to shortcomings of Office Workspace. It worked fine. But because the coffeehouse put me on a time out while I had documents open, I had to finish my notes of the meeting today by hand. I didn’t lose anything critical, but I easily could have.

Findings

  1. Office Workspace is very cool. I love the clean layout, the view and comments functions, etc. And the fact that it’s Microsoft means it’s compatible with the core applications I use every day.
  2. One of its main features is project sharing and collaboration, which I would rarely use.
    Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible,
    early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone.*
  3. It would also be a good place to keep backup files. There’s 5GB of storage.   
  4. It would be perfect for times when I need to access my work on a client’s computer. Save it at my office, and walk into their office ready to go. Chances are, their connection to the Net is rock solid. And that would make me look cool, as I always should.
  5. I want to, love to, play with things like this, but I’m better off working from my hard drive, because
  6. If you lose your internet connect while you’ve got unsaved changes, you’re screwed.

Epilogue – The Bottom Line

Office Workspace might be ready for work, but the Internet isn’t. The lights are on, but you can’t always get there from here.

Word on the street is that Google’s Chrome OS is coming out in about a year. It will be an operating system that consists mostly of a browser. There will be no software like Word or Excel on it. Everything will be done in the Cloud.

I don’t think the Internet is ready to take on the task. They’re getting all these fancy Cloud applications set to sail, but forgetting that the Internet isn’t everywhere, and it isn’t reliable. And until it is, we just can’t move our stuff out there.

*John Updike
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