The scoop on Buzzword, the first web-based word processor

by Rick Treitman

Editor's note: On October 1, 2007, Adobe announced its intention to acquire Virtual Ubiquity, makers of Buzzword, an online word processor.

Three years ago in October 2004, I was on the O'Reilly Media campus and the proverbial light bulb clicked on. Tim O'Reilly was in front of the group and he was rolling out his Web 2.0 spiel. I'd heard him do it once before, but this time a key phrase grabbed my attention: platform shift.

I have been in the software industry since the 1970s. In fact, in the '80s I was responsible for managing Lotus Manuscript, a DOS word processing product. I have also been an English teacher, writer, and bookstore owner.

For years, DOS was the operating system of choice, and WordPerfect was the solution for word processing. However, in 1989 Microsoft introduced the Windows 3.0 operating system and there was a sea change. People moved from DOS to Windows. Soon thereafter, Microsoft launched Word for Windows, and it became the de facto standard for word processing — and we've been stuck with Microsoft Word ever since. It's all Word, all the time.

So when I heard Tim say those key words, "platform shift," it was clear to me that someone would be writing a new word processor and that I knew the team that could do it. A few e-mails was all it took to start putting the band back together.

Finding the right technology platform

At first we were just three guys working from an attic in Lexington, Massachusetts. Now Virtual Ubiquity is an 11-strong startup comprised of industry veterans from companies including Lotus, Interleaf, eRoom, AT&T Interchange, Software Arts, and Intuit.

We aspired to create an online product that fostered collaboration and was better than the industry standard. With Buzzword, we wanted to develop a real pagination-based word processor — one that offered greater document quality, superior typography and page layout controls, and better support for integrated graphics. Additionally, we wanted to take advantage of the web as a platform and facilitate collaboration by enabling multiple authors to edit and comment on documents from anywhere, at anytime — regardless of operating system, browser, or device.

But we had to find the right technology platform. So before committing to the project, we did a number of prototypes in the technologies we knew: .Net, Ajax, C++, and Java. But each had their problems: Java was too slow; .Net didn't give us the cross-platform portability we needed; and Ajax, in our opinion, was too limited. We needed one technology that would support all platforms and all browsers without forcing us to rewrite the app each time an operating system or browser was updated.

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With us having run through the obvious choices, Tad Staley suggested Flash. At the time, Tad was the Director of Macromedia Consulting. Tad had also been part of the Manuscript team at Lotus and knew well the challenges involved in writing a word processor.

At first, our developers did not take Flash seriously, but Tad kept pushing and finally got us involved with Flex Builder. For a while, we prototyped in Flex 1.5 and felt it was too slow. When Flash Player 9 became available and we ported to Flex Builder 2, we were thrilled to see a significant (10–20 times) boost in performance.

By March 2006, developers Mike Kraley, Paul Kleppner, and David Coletta had a rudimentary word processor up and running, and we demo'ed the application to the Flex team in Newton, Massachusetts, and in San Francisco. The demo was well received. As a result, we were invited to the Flex Developer Summit in June. We'd made significant progress since March and, this time, Mike Kraley blew the room away with his demo.

Investing in Buzzword

Up to this point, we were bootstrapping. Four of us were on the project — Mike, Paul, and David were ensconced in Mike's attic (it's a pretty nice attic) and I was working from my basement. (It's the East Coast version of a garage startup — but our garages tend to be a bit cold in the winter.)

By this time Adobe had acquired Macromedia and had redirected their venture fund to support cool applications that leveraged Flex and Flash. At MAX 2006 in Las Vegas, Kevin Lynch demo'ed Buzzword in Apollo (which has since become Adobe AIR).

As David Coletta and I sat in the audience and saw the public debut of our baby up on the huge screen, Kevin announced that Virtual Ubiquity had received the first investment from the new Adobe Flex/Flash Venture Fund. Needless to say, we were pretty excited.

With the Adobe investment, we were able to rent offices and build our staff. We were hell-bent on hiring Robby Shaver. He is the best designer we know on the East Coast, and we weren't willing to settle for anything less.

Robby joined us and started working on design. We added QA engineers Bob Treitman and Ellen Walsh, and we doubled our developer ranks with the addition of Peter Levin, Steve Yost, and Patrick Slaney. All of our new team members had extensive backgrounds in text: three of them from Interleaf, and Pete with Atex, Texet, Lotus, Slate, and Trellix on his résumé. We now had a team and could accelerate development.

Buzzword debuts

In May 2007, we released a preview of Buzzword. This preview generated a lot of interest from press, analysts, and software companies. In fact, at MAX 2007 in Chicago, Adobe announced its intention to acquire Virtual Ubiquity. We couldn't be happier. This past year has allowed us to begin to realize Buzzword's potential. In the coming years, with the support and commitment from Adobe, we'll continue to make it better and better.

We know we have a lot to do, and that excites us. What excites us even more is that this platform shift allows for iterative development. It's not like the old days when you crammed a bunch of bits in a box, shrink-wrapped it, and sent it on its way to market. Now we can put out a build, listen to the market, and respond quickly. We've been releasing new builds every 4–6 weeks.

In fact, our major efforts right now are to incorporate Abobe AIR and PDF. With Abobe AIR we'll be able to build a true hybrid application: one that works equally well online and offline, that's launchable from the start menu or dock, that provides for local file storage, and that has drag-and-drop capabilities on the desktop. We plan to integrate Buzzword into Adobe LiveCycle as well as into the newly announced SHARE service.

Finally, we are excited to be joining forces with Adobe, a company that shares our passion for quality, design, and — most of all — helping people communicate and work together.

That's the scoop on Buzzword. I invite you to sign up for a Buzzword preview account. I think you'll be surprised with Buzzword's rich interface, quality of the typography, layout, and overall user experience we created using Flex and ActionScript 3.0. Let us know what you think. We have an active user forum and e-mail exchange with our growing user base.

Rick Treitman is the CEO of Virtual Ubiquity, maker of Buzzword.