A great online tool is available from Google, called Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Actually, this free program was called Writely until Google purchased the company that produces it and renamed the product. I've used it occasionally for several years, and I still call it Writely instead of the mouthful of words of Google Docs & Spreadsheets. This program can be especially useful for genealogists and others involved in collaborative writing.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets is an online word processor and spreadsheet program. The natural comparison is to Microsoft's Word and Excel. In fact, Google Docs & Spreadsheets is sort of a "trimmed down" imitation of the two Microsoft products. It is "trimmed down" in the sense that the Google products do not contain all the features of the Microsoft products. However, they do contain all of the every-day features used by 99% of us. The only features missing are the more esoteric and less-commonly used features.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets has one strength that the Microsoft products cannot touch: it is an online Web 2.0 product. That is, you do not install any software into your computer. Any time that you wish to use a word processor or a spreadsheet, you simply connect to the Internet and go to http://docs.google.com. The old URL of http://www.writely.com still works and takes you to the same place. Once there, you can create or edit documents and then save them onto your own computer's hard drive or onto a web server. If you elect to store documents on a Google server, you may choose to make them public or to restrict access to them via user names and passwords.
You can use Google Docs & Spreadsheets from your Windows, Macintosh, or Linux system at home, if you wish. However, I suspect that most people will already have a suitable word processor and probably a spreadsheet also. I doubt if many people will use Google Docs & Spreadsheets from home as their primary word processor or spreadsheet programs. However, there are two scenarios in which the program becomes even better than a similar program installed on your home system.
The first is when you are not at home. You may be using someone else's computer at a friend's house, an Internet café, a public library, or most any other location. Perhaps that computer does not have your preferred word processor or spreadsheet installed. Even if it does, you might not want to save your documents to that system's hard drive. For convenience or for privacy, you may prefer to save documents in a password-protected private area of a web site, where you can retrieve the documents when you return home. Google Docs & Spreadsheets will do that. To ensure your privacy, the program does not leave behind any temporary files on the borrowed computer.
The second use I can think of is perhaps more appealing to genealogists involved in group writing projects. Let's say that you and your cousin(s) are involved in a research project and wish to work together, writing a book or a short article. Another scenario is when you and your acquaintance wish to work together to write an article for publication in a genealogy magazine. The third is when you and your co-workers are working together to prepare the annual company budget.
With traditional word processors and spreadsheet programs, you must constantly send files back and forth amongst your collaborators. The longer you work together and the more people involved, the more confusing it becomes. Typically, the number of files grows. The files may have similar names, making it confusing to find the latest version. There is always a question of "who has the master file right now?" It is usually impossible for two or more people to be working on the same file at the same time. The serial process becomes slower and slower as each person makes his/her updates and then sends the file to the next person.
To be sure, one person can be assigned as the "editor," accepting inputs from each contributor and then merging them together. However, that process can also be unwieldy. Besides, the individuals cooperating on the project do not have the benefit of easily seeing the work already contributed by others. You might not want to add an extra paragraph if you see that your co-author has already written something similar.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets solves these issues. In fact, there is only one file, and everyone involved in the project can see it at any time. (Backup copies are easily made, if desired.) Two or more people can easily work on a document or spreadsheet that is stored online in Google's servers.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets is one of the few tools available that lets multiple people view and make changes to a single document at the same time. That's right: you and your collaborator(s) can actually both be making changes on a file simultaneously. Whatever you add is instantly visible to the other person and vice-versa. There's an on-screen chat window for spreadsheets, and document revisions show you exactly who changed what, and when.
Each document can be made public for everyone to see although I suspect it is more common to keep documents "locked up" in a secure area that is only accessible via passwords. The original creator of the document always maintains full control over who can access each document. Perhaps two people will work together writing the magazine assignment. When completed, the editor of the magazine might then be given access so that he or she can then read it and possibly even make changes that instantly become visible to the original authors for their approval. Nobody ever has to send files back and forth in e-mail. Just enter the e-mail addresses of the people with whom you want to share a given file, and send them an invitation. They can click on a link in that e-mail invitation and immediately gain access to the file you specified - and only to that one file. Should you care to do so, you can invite them to view and edit multiple files. Again, full control remains with the originator of the documents.
Documents can be saved online or downloaded to your local computer in DOC, XLS, CSV, ODS, ODT, PDF, RTF, and HTML formats. These files are then easily used at a later time in Microsoft Word, Excel, or similar programs that can read those file formats.
You can also upload existing files from your computer to Google Docs & Spreadsheets. This can be very useful when you have already been working on a document and now wish to share it with someone else, such as a magazine editor.
You can also publish your documents and spreadsheets online with one click -as normal-looking web pages - without having to learn anything new. If you are writing a newsletter for a genealogy society that does not have a web site, you can publish the document on Google. Simply publish it as a normal web page in your Google Docs & Spreadsheets account, and give the URL to the club members. Once you've created a document, you also can post it to your blog.
I suspect there are more uses for Google Docs & Spreadsheets, but the above are the first that spring to mind for genealogists.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets is available at no charge at any time you need it. You will need to create a free Google account. The same account will also give you access to Gmail, Google's excellent, free e-mail service. If you already have a Gmail account, you can use the same user name and password on Google Docs & Spreadsheets.
I doubt if Google Docs & Spreadsheets will replace traditional word processors and spreadsheet programs, at least not in the next few years. It may become dominant once very high speed Internet connections become universally available, even to laptop computers used on a commuter bus or train. Until then, I would consider Google Docs & Spreadsheets to be an excellent product for occasional use and also a powerful tool for group collaborations.
You might want to add Google Docs & Spreadsheets to your "genealogy toolbox." You probably won't use it often, but when you do have a need, it will be valuable.
For more information, or to start writing a document right now, go to http://docs.google.com.