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Writely, meet the ICE template


Tom Worthington, writes that Writely has been acquired by Google.

This made me remember that I have a Writely account, so I went back to have a look. I have one document sitting in there.

Tom says:

Writely is limited by being provided over the web, via a web browser. You type your document in a window on the web browser. Most of the time this is fine, but every now and then when Writely needs to do something complicated, you have to wait while the data is sent from browser to server and back. But you can use Writely from (almost) any computer with a web browser and Internet connection.

Writely is far from OpenOffice.Org, which does try to be a rival to Ms-Office, has lots of functionality, but is therefore very complex. I spend a lot of my time removing extraneous formatting put in by "features" of Ms-Word and OOO documents so they can be put on the web efficiently or be used in typesetting systems.


So lets talk about the process of "removing extraneous formatting" Tom mentions. My one and only Writely document was originally imported from an OpenOffice.org document. I chose an article I wrote about OpenOffice.org- to-XHTML export. The thing looked roughly like my original document but with one major problem. None of the lists came through properly; so there were numbered lists that went, like, 1, 0, 2, 3 instead of 1, 2, 3, 4. And where there should have been plain-old <p> tags there was this nonsense :

So is the Writely's fault? Well no. This kind of behavior is pretty much what you'd get if you exported an HTML file from OpenOffice.org. That is, it looks like crap.

Why is it crap? Because the word processor has one model for things like lists and styles and so on and HTML has another. They're not the same. And no software in the world is going to be able to divine what I meant by my styles (or the lack of them). I wrote about this last year.


If only there was a stylesheet/template one could use that would let one reliably map word processing documents to HTML. (Yeah I know, I invented it).

Using such a stylesheet is a kind of contract between the author and the tools. If I use a paragraph of style 'p' then the tools are allowed to make me a plain <p> without all the formatting info.

And if I have paragraphs with styles on them for lists, blockquotes, and code? I'm writing this in OpenOffice.org, so I can show you, using my special Styles menu I can apply these things with a few clicks or key-strokes. Watch this:

  1. {stlyle: li1n} This is an item in a numbered list.

  2. {stlyle: li1n} This is also part of a numbered list. But let's include something the user would type:

    {style: pre2}>svn co http://ice.usq.edu.au/svn/ice/trunk

  3. {stlyle: li1n} More list.

    • {style: li2b} And a sub list that quotes someone else?

    • {style: li2b} Spencer the puppy dog says:

      {style: bq3} Get out of my yard birdy!

      • {style: li4b} Woof

      • {style: li4b} Woof

      • {style: li4b} Woof

Did you see how my tools were smart enough to work out that the barking bullets above were part of the blockquote, and the blockquote was part of a list item, and the list item was part of a list and the list was part of a list item...

You get the idea. Pure, lovely XHTML. Go on, look at the source.

(The style names are just there to help you see what's happening - I don't have to type them in)

What could be done differently over at Writely so they can reliably import documents and get the lists right, and better still, let people start off in Writely online and produce word processing docs to send out to others?

The Writely / Google people could design a well thought out, freely available generic word processing template that works more or less equally well in various different word processing environments (hint - you'll need some clean-up code to help the poor word processors keep their lists straight).

It would help if other services and software used it as well so people could move stuff around more freely than they can now. Or they could use the well thought out, freely available generic word processing template from the ICE project (they may not be able to use the GPL licensed code that goes with it, but it would not be hard to write. Even my colleague Ian Barnes who is a mere computer science lecturer managed to do it, using the exact same ICE template, and there is a PDF presentation to prove it).

Online word processor people, drop me a line and I'll help you out.