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OpenOffice expert's review: On-the-go docs with AjaxWrite

An office suite expert explores the word-processing capabilities of a free, web-based app, AjaxWrite, by writing an article with it.

If AjaxWrite were just any new, free word processor, it would be mildly interesting. But it caught my eye because it is an online application written in the hot and useful Ajax language. Here's how to use it and what I encountered when I explored it for the first time.

Looking for a zippy intro to this article, I wondered about the origins of the name Ajax. Ajax was a Greek hero in the Trojan War who went mad and tried to kill his peers when Odysseus, not he, got the armor of slain Achilles. Athena made Ajax think cattle were his comrades-in-arms, and Ajax killed the herd. When he realized his mistake, he killed himself as an honorable exit.

Even though AjaxWrite may lead you astray once or twice, it won't drive you mad.

So, let's get down to business. I decided to test the most commonly used word processing features:

As a part of the test I wrote this whole article the first time through in AjaxWrite. Here's how to use it, and what I encountered as I explored it for the first time.

Use Netscape (preferably) or FireFox to go to The Web site says that the application is for Firefox, but I found a couple of features that only work, or work better, in Netscape. Click the icon to start it up, and you're on your way.


The first document looks like this; it opens an existing overview document about the product.


Creating files
To create a new file, you just choose File > New, as you'd expect, or click the Open icon on the toolbar.

Name the document, and that name shows up in the tab at the top. If you create more files, it still displays the existing files. You can see all your currently open files in the row of tabs at the top, as shown.

Saving files
To save, just click the Save icon (the diskette) in the toolbar, or choose File > Save, or press Ctrl S. This window lets you choose to save to disk.

The editing format is Word.

The file is then saved to your desktop using the title you specified when you created the file. The application provides no way to choose where you save the file in FireFox, which I find a little annoying also. It's just saved to your desktop.

If you use Netscape, however, you get to choose where the file goes. You get the same initial window as before for saving the file to disk. But then you get this window; you can choose where to put the file.

If you save the file again in FireFox, the application creates a file with the same name but with an incremented numerical extension. In Netscape you're allowed to overwrite the old file.

Note: Every once in a while, pressing Ctrl + S gave me a window in which the default file and format was index.xul. Needless to say, that was the actual browser file, not the document. Stick to the Save icon on the toolbar.

To use Save As in FireFox, just choose File > Save As; you get this window. You can save to PDF, RTF, plain text, OpenOffice and Word. All the formats seem to work pretty well, including PDF.

Select the format, then click OK and you'll get the other standard save window again.

To use Save As in Netscape--well, you can't. No window comes up, which means you don't get to choose a different file type like OpenOffice. But you can save your current file as a different name and/or location. Just click the usual Save icon. When you get to the point that you can specify the file name and location, just specify the file type you want.

Now, here's a very important difference. When you use Save As in other applications, the newly saved version becomes the one you're working with. In AjaxWrite, the Save As function works differently. You just keep working in the same .doc Word format file. When you use Save As, it's more of a Save a Copy feature. You keep working in your main original document; the files don't seem to be tied to the instance of the content you're working in. This is definitely a different concept than you'd find when working with a standard word processor.

Opening files
To open a file, click the Open icon on the toolbar; you'll be prompted to click Browse and you can then find your Ajax document.

Here's an issue. AjaxWrite can make files with names longer than it can open. You can, of course, correct this by changing the file name.

AjaxWrite opened my existing Word and Write documents fine--the text, at least. The graphics were converted to links like <img src="goldenrules.jpg"> . This happened both in Netscape and in FireFox. I believe it was because in those documents I had linked to the graphics rather than inserting them. When I created a test document with an inserted graphic, the document opened correctly with the graphic displaying instead of the link.

Text formatting
The formatting toolbar is pretty standard. Select text then apply a font, font size, bold italic underline, alignment, bulleting and numbering, indenting, and font color and highlighting.

I found it annoying that I can't select the text and then see its font and font size displayed. No matter what I've got selected, Arial 8 Point is displayed on the toolbar.

Tables are, well, a mystery worthy of Nancy Drew. I had this article all written, saying it was impossible to create a multi-column table without crazy copying and pasting. But then I clicked something or tweaked something and discovered the Extremely Tiny Table Controls.

When you insert a table (Insert > Table), you get this. Not much fun, is it? Press Tab to get more rows but I could not figure out how to get more columns.

Until I found this tiny little thing, magnified here. Click on a cell and you'll see this tiny little three-part icon.

The same applies when you have the control on a row.

Voila! A multi-column, single-row table!

Press Tab a few times and now you get a multi-row, multi-column table.

Graphics worked for me in Netscape, but not FireFox. Copy and paste an image file from the file system, or drag the file from the file system into the document.

Copying and pasting
Pasting in from a Web page worked great--the text took on the formatting characteristics of the document. Copying and pasting from AjaxWrite to OpenOffice worked well too; text color, font and size were preserved.

I pressed Ctrl + P and got a message that some printing functionality was not implemented yet. I chose File > Print and got the usual window. Everything worked as expected.

Help and forums
There isn't any online help and there isn't much in the forums. I couldn't find anything about how to create multi-column tables without the wacky copy-and-paste thing. I imagine there'll be more on the forums as more people use the product.

Summing up
AjaxWrite has a little bit of a whiff of StarOffice 5.2--if it doesn't work the first time, try it again in a different way and it'll probably work.

Try it in Netscape first, not FireFox.

On the plus side, it saves to multiple formats including Word, OpenOffice Writer and PDF. Those are all extraordinarily useful.

Now it's available, it's available, and it's free. I'm very practical and I think you don't have to be a multi-billion dollar program to be useful. Let's say I'm at a convention, I need to write up some documents or handouts pronto, and I don't have my laptop. Ajax is just fine for putting together a quick document with some bold-heading titles and some lists. Tables and graphics are lagging but if I have to have handouts for my talk in 30 minutes, I'm not going to be really fussy about formatting.

So -- let's say I give it a B- for now. It can't compare to a standard word processor, but it's not meant to. It still lacks a few features but overall it's usable for people who expect it to be what it is--a tool for simple documents, either for when you're in a hurry or for when you're not at your regular computer.

You can learn more at and

Solveig Haugland has worked as an instructor, course developer, author and technical writer in the high-tech industry for 15 years, for employers including Microsoft Great Plains, Sun Microsystems,and BEA. Currently, Solveig is a StarOffice and instructor, author, and freelance technical writer. She is also co-author, with Floyd Jones, of three books: Staroffice 5.2 Companion, Staroffice 6.0 Office Suite Companion and OpenOffice.Org 1.0 Resource Kit, published by Prentice Hall PTR. Her fourth book, on 2.0, is coming this summer. For more tips on working in OpenOffice, visit Solveig's OpenOffice blog.

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