I’m intrigued by Adobe’s web-based word processor, Buzzword. (Adobe announced the purchase of the creator Virtual Ubiquity September 30th, 2007.) Buzzword is inviting to use, creates beautiful documents, has innovative file management and file sharing options. It’s built in Flex, using Flash (on the web) and AIR (on the desktop) so you can work online and offline. There are definitely areas where it has a ways to go in terms of features and accessibility.
During a demo, Rick Treitman, of Virtual Ubiquity, said “We don’t qualify as an accessible product, but Adobe has accessibility experts and I’m sure they’ll be crawling all over it.” Here’s hoping. He described Buzzword as an “ideal tool for students” and sees “students and educators as the bulk of early adopters.” Treitman indicated that they will be looking to Adobe to implement internationalization: “We’ve architected it properly to make that happen.” Documents can currently be saved as an MSWord doc, rich text file, html, or plain text. Encryption is not currently available.
Like other web-based word processing platforms (e.g. Google Docs), you can share a document by entering someone’s email address. You can assign levels of access (co-author, reviewer, editor). You can sort your document list: alphabetically, by author, by your own roles, by last time you viewed the docs, by last time you modified them, and by file size.
A nice innovation is that the sort by file size is based on number of pages, rather than kbs. Still, I wonder what the file list is going to look like in two years when I’ve got tons of files and I want to see a list of what I’ve got shared with Joe? Can I filter more narrowly? It’s like my gmail problem with not being able to archive labels. You can’t remove a label from your list of labels _and_ keep old items labeled with the now-defunct label. So far, folders still provide the best archiving option I’ve used.
There are some strong features that would be winners if the app could be standards-based. Virtual Ubiquity picked up on how users fight with lists and offer some nice affordances (a button to skip a paragraph within a list, start a new/continue a list). (Especially useful since your context menu doesn’t exist in the Flash environment.) Working with images in Buzzword is a pleasure compared to MSWord. Tables are easy to adjust, but options are limited. The tables default to having some padding in the cells (unlike MSWord), but you cannot adjust how much. Selecting, adding, and deleting rows and columns is downright delightful.
The interactions are peppy. I work over satellite internet, and do not experience any latency. The interface design is minimalist and, at first hammering, enjoyable (if you have hands, good fine motor skills, and excellent eyesight). You won’t find complex dialog boxes with an overload of choices.
Some keyboard shortcuts work such as basic formatting and increasing of text size. However, you can not currently insert special characters. There’s no option for alternate text for images. I asked Treitman about heading levels and styles. He said, “In doing our research when you ask people if they’re using styles, 80% of them don’t use styles. They’re just too hard to use.” I did not get the impression of awareness of the importance or utility of the semantic information behind a document.
The color picker gives a sense of how small the target size is of many of the elements in Buzzword. If fine motor coordination poses problems for you, Buzzword will not be easy to maneuver.
Comments can have images in them and can be dragged into the body of the document. The comment balloon is available in the right margin wherever the cursor is. (No need to make the ‘reviewing toolbar’ visible, select text, and then insert a comment.)
I haven’t tried editing a Buzzword doc synchronously with someone else. I love being able to do that in Google docs. “See what you think of this.” “OK, I changed a couple of words–do those look all right?” Buzzword does keep a “few” versions of docs. This will probably come in handy through the early bumps of multiple people working offline and then connecting. I haven’t heard whether they will offer merge options.
Buzzword is a good example of the tension between ensuring that accessibility be incorporated from the beginning of design and the need to encourage development of innovation and creativity tools. While I know the latter is important, it’s difficult to imagine the decision to go back and start from scratch to create an accessible version of the same application.