Quip: A Beautiful, Contrarian Word Processor

It's missing standard word-processing features -- and what it does, it does in a whole new way.

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Word processors may be among the most essential pieces of software on the planet, but they’re also among the most mundane. The last one I can think of that felt like a landmark was Writely, the 2005 browser-based app that later became Google Docs. And even though a fair amount of writing is done on mobile devices these days, most of it is done with apps that basically attempt to mimic and extend desktop word processors — usually Microsoft Word, which still dominates the industry so utterly that it tends to define even its competition.

And then there’s Quip. The brand-new product of a startup founded by Bret Taylor (ex-Facebook CTO and Google Maps co-creator) and Kevin Gibbs (another ex-Googler), Quip lacks some features you’d expect a word processor to have. But the things it does do, it does in ways often strikingly different from garden-variety word processors.

Quip is an app for iPad and iPhone (with a preview version for Android) and a browser-based service for desktop and laptop computers. I’ve only used it a little bit so far, so I’m not prepared to review it. But you only have to sample it on your device or in your browser to see that (A) it looks gorgeous; and (B) it emphasizes collaboration above all else in a manner that’s striking even in an era in which all word processors have collaborative features.

Even now, a heck of a lot of word-processing collaboration is done by e-mailing documents in Word format. Quip, however, doesn’t support Word format. In fact, other than a PDF output option in the browser version, it doesn’t offer any way to get documents out of Quip at all.

Instead, it tries to give tools that will lure teams to retool their approach to collaboration around Quip:

  • Every document permits simultaneous editing by multiple users, with a built-in persistent chat window, where everyone can discuss a work in progress and see who made which changes;
  • You can turn bulleted lists into checklists, allowing for a basic form of group task management;
  • You can use Twitter-like @mentions to embed links to people, documents or Quip folders into a document;
  • Push notifications alert collaborators to what’s going on with a document;
  • Offline capabilities let you work on a document without an Internet connection, then sync it back up when you’re back online.

When it comes to typical word-processing features, Quip is minimalist — which is a polite way of saying there’s a lot of stuff missing. You can embed images and tables, and do the most basic of formatting by making any bit of text either a headline (in one of three sizes) or plain old paragraph text. And that’s it. I don’t even see a way to get a word count or do a spell check.

None of Quip’s variants have traditional menus or toolbars or other standard-issue word-processing interface elements. Everything’s done as a series of sliding panes that let you segue between a “desktop” full of documents, the chat window and the document you’re editing. It’s a mobile-first design that’s very, very slick — the browser-based version may turn out to be the most serious rival to Apple’s upcoming iWork when it comes to sheer visual splendor.

In a peculiar way, Quip reminds me of Google’s late, unlamented collaborative service Wave, which was another world unto itself, with workgroup  document editing, versioning, chat and other features smooshed together in a wildly ambitious and unorthodox fashion. But while it was tough to figure out exactly what Wave was for, Quip’s overarching purpose is obvious. It’s something that every business knows it needs: a word processor.

Quip is following a freemium strategy. Up to five people can use the basic version for free, and there’s a fancier edition (currently in beta) for $12 per user per month. I assume that it’ll get more basic features over time, and that there’s a chance it’ll extend an olive branch to Microsoft-centric workplaces by adding features such as Word importing and exporting. Even in its current form, it’s well worth checking out — especially if you can convince a coworker or two to join you.