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The vexed topic of an online word processing system is back on the agenda after Google bought start-up Writely in a potential challenge to Microsoft's desktop suite.

The four-person, Silicon Valley based Writely has been quietly delivering a browser-based word processing and collaboration environment. In true Google style, Writely will stay a "beta" service - where it's been since August 2005 - with new users invited to put their name on a special waiting list.

The move appears as a challenge to Microsoft's Office desktop productivity suite and comes as Microsoft tries to take a bite out of Google's search business. Microsoft on Wednesday announced availability of its Google-like Windows Live Search beta.

Google has, of course, been working towards the concept of a virtual desktop - the desktop being dominated by both Microsoft's productivity software and operating system. The latest Google Desktop beta built on earlier works targeting single desktops, with the ability to search other desktops.

Naturally, this raised one or two privacy and security concerns.

It is not year clear what Google has planned for Writely, although the start up's staffers believe that the deal will provide the level of resources previously lacked to improve the service. "Coming to Google will eventually give us a leg up on getting things done that we just haven't been able to with our tiny team," Writely said on its site.

The immediate prospect is, naturally, for a scalable version of a hosted desktop productivity suite, a nirvana that has eluded the industry since the late 1990s. Sun Microsystems' $73.5m acquisition of Star Division, and StarOffice, in 1999 sparked this concept, but StarOffice turned into just another client alternative to Office.

Around that time, Microsoft started to kick around the idea of a hosted version of Office, and engaged in some low-level pilots that failed to yield any service. Many, meanwhile, leapt on Microsoft's concept of Office Live, announced in 2005, as a hosted version of the ubiquitous suite. A hosted version of Office is almost certainly out of the picture for now, as Microsoft is locking down Office 2007.

Writely does offer something of a challenge to Microsoft, because - like Office - it is going beyond the traditional concept of "just" word processing, unlike Sun's StarOffice.

Writely adds online collaboration and sharing, notions that are being pushed hard by Microsoft in newer versions of Office through integration with the Windows server family. Writely features include version control, document sharing, and the ability to post documents as Word, OpenOffice, RTF, PDF, HTML and zip files. There is also support for popular blog services, enabling users to write and publish their blogs from within Writely.

Any Google/Writely service will take a lot of honing if it is intended to compete against Office, though. One Writely staffer called the service "far from perfect," a point Microsoft highlighted in down playing news of the acquisition itself and any competition from Google. "

A Microsoft spokesperson tactfully welcomed competition in the Office marketplace, but said Microsoft's suite is the "the clear leader" because customers benefit from the company's focus on making them become "more productive." Google was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.®

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