Yesterday, Jonathan Blum of TheStreet posted an entry on his Small Business center column with the evocative title Buzzword Loses Some of Its Charm. This obviously caught the attention of several of us on the Buzzword team.
We’re a little obsessive about customer feedback – the entire team subscribes to the feedback mailing list and reads each message. The reason is not to bask in the overwhelmingly positive responses we receive, but to pay attention to areas where we can improve the product. Our development schedule and priorities are largely determined by what we here from our customers – from the street, so to speak. So when we collectively turned to this article, it was with an honest interest in learning how we could do better.
First the good news…
Though the title is cautionary, much of the article is quite positive. For starters, it indicates that the folks at TheStreet, “have edited dozens of stories and blog items per week with Buzzword.” So we knew two things: they are speaking from experience, and they must appreciate Buzzword to use it so heavily. In fact, the article begins by laying out the case for Buzzword:
Make no mistake: Buzzword is the word-processing, document-handling real deal. For absolutely no upfront cost, you get a fully functional, easy-to-use word processor that edits, stores, marks up and files your documents.
Buzzword is no homemade, cheapie product. It has the entire design and business muscle of Adobe behind it. So it’s not going anywhere. And the design and user interface for this software is off the hook: Elegant fonts, excellent graphics tools and slick spellcheckers are my favorites among many rich layout and design features.
Listen up, digital content creators: Buzzword has a terrific export option that enables dead-on, clean extraction of text and graphics. Got a hungry blog to feed? Buzzword’s export-to-text feature has literally never coughed up even a bad spacing in our testing. Just try working that miracle using Microsoft Word or Google Apps.
Adobe also deserves credit for some neat programming sleights of hand here. Buzzword is based on Adobe’s Web language Flash, so all document processing is handled locally on your desktop. Under the right conditions, text appears in real time on the page. And the system can work on even very slow Web connections, and collaboration is well thought out and easy to use.
Then he summarizes the enumerated benefits of Buzzword this way:
In many ways, Buzzword is one of the best word processors you can buy (sic). Period.
Directives for Improvement
This was a great introduction, and makes his subsequent feedback more palatable: he appreciates what we’ve done, and would now provide us with a list of things we should focus on in the near term. In all candor, Jonathan’s feedback is valid and appropriate, and we are working on each item.
The challenges presented in the article distill down to three points:
- Managing large numbers of Buzzword documents and invitations
- Integrating Buzzword with HTML-based tools and resources
- Performance on multi-tasking or lower-end machines
1. Managing Documents and Access
Handling dozens of Buzzword documents is a challenge with which many of us are all too familiar. Some of us on the Buzzword team have several hundred documents. Buzzword offers a variety of sort options and, as Jonathan implied, with good naming conventions you can manage pretty well.
We’ve known since our very first release that we’d have to add much more robust document handling capabilities. We were clear that the Buzzword Organizer was suitable for up to about 50 documents, after which it got a bit cumbersome.
So we have a fairly significant design and development effort underway that will add significantly more ease and power to handling documents. This will include management not only of Buzzword documents, but other file types within your Acrobat.com account. This upgrade is months away but, speaking not only for myself but for countless other users awash in Buzzword docs, it will be well received.
In the shorter term, we’ll be offering improvements to the way you can share and access Buzzword documents. This includes two very important features:
- Copy/Paste Sharing Lists will let users copy a list of collaborators from one document to another, simplifying the sharing process.
- Access to Buzzword documents – at the author’s discretion – for anyone with the URL, without logging in to Buzzword.
These two improvements, weeks away, will go a long way in improving the process of sharing and accessing Buzzword documents, and will help us regain the Buzzword charm in Jonathan’s eyes.
2. Lost on a Buzzword Island?
Buzzword was developed in Flex and delivered on Adobe’s ubiquitous Flash platform. One of our very first blog entries described why we chose Flash over HTML-based approaches:
We wanted more fidelity. We wanted better typography. We wanted more control of the page. We wanted to display the page you’ll get from the printer. We also wanted to be able to seamlessly integrate graphics within text – including dragging and dropping, resizing or running text around graphics – something HTML doesn’t easily support.
And, we wanted browser independence and didn’t want to have to recode or even worry about the user’s choice of browser.
In short, we wanted the reach of the Internet without the limitations of the browser.
Jonathan’s article correctly identifies some of the challenges inherent in delivering in Flash – since the content on the screen is not in HTML, we don’t get some of the native advantages of the browser, such as integration with RSS feeds, content scrapers and search engines. Some of this we can work around programmatically – for example, we’ve played with an RSS feed through which people can subscribe to one or more documents. This hasn’t been released yet because it will naturally complement a few other features – a few of which are mentioned above – that we also plan on releasing.
On the other hand, we have a bias toward preserving the privacy of documents, so the fact that Buzzword documents are not natively accessible by search engines seems like a benefit, not a shortcoming.
The real answer to Jonathan’s sense of Buzzword as an island is in our plan to build better bridges – opening up API access to Buzzword documents. This is certainly on our roadmap.
3. Performance Matters
There are two kinds of performance to consider when using Buzzword: launching Buzzword and loading documents, and ongoing performance when using Buzzword, especially when multi-tasking.
It’s no surprise that Buzzword takes a little longer to load than, say, Google Docs. In a similar vein, Microsoft Word doesn’t load as fast as Notepad or TextEdit on a Mac. When you first launch Buzzword, we must enable the Buzzword Flash-based engine, which has much more under the proverbial hood than simple HTML editors. This is one of the trade-offs we willingly made, as referenced above, when choosing the Flash platform – a little slower load time, but a much richer environment for writing and reading documents.
Over time, we’ll tune this further. For example, we’ll be able to load fonts on demand, rather than just loading all fonts at startup. The Flash platform is a real run-time environment and provides lots of programmatic control over the environment so, just as over time Word began to incrementally load functionality, so too we’ll continually refine Buzzword to load faster.
The issue of performance degradation with ongoing use of Buzzword is difficult to track down, but we too have seen it from time to time. Personally, I no longer load multiple Buzzword instances – e.g. several browser tabs, each with a Buzzword document. Buzzword’s graphic-rich environment does consume more system resources than lower-end applications; over time, and with multiple documents loaded, memory can get crowded and system performance can result. Another trick I employ is to occasionally close down the browser altogether, then relaunch it and Buzzword – this gives your system a chance to reset its memory.
This is obviously not an optimum approach, and our engineers will continue to refine all aspects of Buzzword system requirements and performance. But for the short term, bear with us and use these techniques – Buzzword is worth the effort, and we’ll continue to make it better.
Extending the Buzzword Charm
The bottom line is that Buzzword is a work in process. Already hundreds of thousands of users have adopted Buzzword, and we hear from them daily that the experience is more than satisfying. As we’ve often stated, an advantage of delivering software online is that we can continually update the system, adding new functionality and improvements on much shorter intervals and with much less disruption than you’d expect from traditional software products.
As Jonathan stated, Buzzword is already one of the best word processors available. And it’s only going to keep getting better.