Google Docs reconsidered

Since Google Docs officially went out of beta on July 7, 2009, the Web-based office application suite has steadily gone through a series of changes and tweaks.

Google has a tendency to add new things to their online apps under the radar, not really hyping them -- unless you are in the habit of checking the Google Docs blog. And it seems as though things are quietly ramping up. That's not surprising, considering the limited launch of Google+, the company's new social networking site, which looks like it's on the way to be heavily associated with Google's other online apps.

I have used Google Docs regularly in my everyday work for nearly two years. In fact, I now use it to write all of my assignments (including the words you are reading now) and maintain a few spreadsheets. I don't remember when I last touched an application from desktop office suite such as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org.

With that in mind, I've taken a look at Google Docs, with a view toward investigating some of the new features, considering how useful they are and looking at what could use improvement.

How Google Docs works

Google Docs is a suite of five Web-based office applications: Document (word processor), Drawing (line drawing editor), Presentation (slide-show maker), Spreadsheet (a spreadsheet program, of course), and Form (a very simple polling app).

Any document or drawing you create with these applications (or convert to the Docs format) is stored on Google's servers under your Google user account; according to the Google Docs Help page, there are no limits to how many documents you can work on within Google Docs itself (although there are some file size limits). You can also store up to 1GB of unconverted files free of charge. Interestingly, you can actually upload files that are sized up to 10GB -- there are several storage plans that let you buy more space.

Internet connection required

There's one fact to keep in mind: Everything related to Google Docs runs online. Throughout my use of Google's Web office suite, I've found that the reliability of my Internet connection is the most important factor -- for example, Document may freeze if your connection suddenly drops. Fortunately, Google Docs continually and automatically saves your files, so it's unlikely that you'll lose any work if something does go wrong.

Google used to provide offline functionality through Google Gears, but it removed that feature in May 2010, saying it did so because it was going to work toward an improved version of this functionality using HTML5, although it hasn't been announced when that will happen. The essential code for the applications would be stored locally in your Web browser and updated the next time your computer goes online.

Starting from Home

The Home screen is the starting point for Google Docs. The documents and drawings you create with its various applications, and the files you upload for storage, are listed here.

This central command for your documents and media is laid out in three columns. The middle column lists your documents and media files. Click on a document name, and Google Docs launches a new browser tab and opens the file. You can also view unconverted image files that you've stored in your Google Docs account: Just click its file name and a viewer window pops open. You can also watch video clips that you've uploaded.

The left column lets you filter your files by whether you have starred them (which marks them as higher priority over others) or by ownership (which is determined based on who originally created a file -- you or someone else). You can also access those you have placed in the trash. This column also lists your "collections."

A collection is Google Doc's term for a folder into which you put files you have selected to be grouped together. For instance, you can put all your invoice-related documents and spreadsheets into a collection you have named "Invoice." You can also create collections within collections -- so that within the Invoice collection you can have another named, say, "Paid."

To create a new collection, simply click on the "Create new" button and name it. You can then check off the files you want to put into this collection, and click on the Organize link in the right column. (When you click "Organize," it would be convenient if you could also create a new collection within this window and not have to go back to the left column to do this.) You can also simply drag and drop file names from the middle column onto the collection name in the left.

The right column shows a thumbnail of a document, image or video clip you've selected in the middle column. Details about the file are listed below the thumbnail, including a description (that you can add to and/or edit), which collection it belongs to, its revision history and its sharing settings.

Sharing documents

Every document can be shared with other users. You can share with a list of people by entering their email addresses or by selecting them from your Google user account's list of contacts; you can also make the document public or accessible by anyone who has its URL. People with whom you share a document privately can collaborate with you on it (or you can just give them viewing rights).

You can also email a document as a file attachment from within an opened document or from the Google Docs Home page. This is handy, but it would be better if you could attach multiple documents at the same time to a single email message.

Revision history

The revision history tool is one of the coolest features available within Google Docs. It pulls up a list of the previous versions of a document. Click on a date in this list, and the main work area will show that document marked with what was changed (for example, in a text document, newly added text is colored green, while deleted text is marked with strike-throughs).

This is great for tracking the progress of a document when two or more people are contributing to it (the author of each revision is noted) or even if you are working solo and need to put something back in you removed.

Printing

Printing from Google Docs can be a rather complicated process. If you're using Google Docs in Internet Explorer or Firefox, when you click "Print," your document is actually converted to a PDF for you to download and print separately.

The experience is more practical if you use Google Docs with Google's own Web browser, Chrome. Starting in Version 13 of the browser, when you click "Print," a print preview page opens in a Chrome browser tab and shows you what your document will look like before you commit it to hard copy. (The previous version of Chrome only brings up your print driver.) A column along the left lets you choose from a list of printers connected to your computer, the number of copies and specific pages to print, the layout (portrait or landscape), and whether to use color. Obviously, this is a huge improvement, but this better printing system needs to be available to users of all the major browsers.

The Google Docs applications

All of the applications have undergone considerable upgrades over the past year, with new features added and old ones improved.

Document

Word processor Document started as an online text editor called Writely (before it was bought by Google) with very basic features. It has since grown to become a nearly full-fledged application that rivals stand-alone desktop word processors.

The application offers many formatting features -- fonts, type size, line spacing, paragraph style and list style -- included in word processors such as Microsoft Word. You can now insert a variety of elements into your document such as headers, footers, tables and mathematical equations. You can also add images by uploading them from your computer.

Google Docs has improved on its ability to import and convert documents to its own format -- it can accept Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, rich text (RTF), HTML or plain text (.txt) documents. For example, an imported Word document that included a number of stylistic elements, including highlighting, retained all its elements. The only exception were tracked changes, which did not translate to the Google Docs document; that wasn't unexpected, since Google's revision history feature tracks changes differently than most word processors do.

On the other side of the equation, you can export your document as a plain text, RTF, ODT, Word or HTML file.

You can upload PDFs or images (JPG, GIF or PNG format) of scanned text, and Google Docs will use an OCR engine to convert it to an editable Documents file. This works impressively well, as long as the text in the PDF or source image file is clear and legible.

Another neat tool converts your document to another language (you can choose from over 50 languages) and stores the translated version as a Google Document file in your personal storage space on Google Docs. Your original document remains unchanged.

Document uses a real-time spell-checker; misspelled words are underlined with a red dotted line. Right-clicking on the word in question brings up a menu where you can select the correct spelling.

One recent, and welcome, addition is pagination, which lets you view a document as separate pages rather than as a single block of text. However, there's still no way to insert (or format) page numbers in a document as you are editing it. Instead, when you are about to print your document, you can set Google Docs to print page numbers in the upper left, upper middle, upper right, lower left, lower middle, or lower right of every page.

Spreadsheet

Google's Spreadsheet is on a par with basic spreadsheet programs such as the one in OpenOffice.org or earlier versions of Excel. It includes hundreds of functions listed under engineering, financial, logical, math, statistics and other categories.

Throughout 2010, the Google Docs developers added several tweaks, including new features like data filtering and a significant tool: pivot tables. The latter helps you quickly pull out ranges and labels of data and instantly generates a recalculated table (essentially, a smaller spreadsheet spun off from the main spreadsheet). I've found pivot tables handy for experimenting with different ways of presenting and recalculating data without having to change the original spreadsheet itself.

Spreadsheet can generate charts based on your data. There are a decent number of presets to create line, column, bar, scatter-point, pie and other types of charts, but not as many varieties as you'd find in OpenOffice.org or recent versions of Excel. One helpful aspect about the chart editor that I like is how each chart sample has a description briefly explaining how your data needs to be formatted to create the graphic.

Spreadsheet imports a variety of formats, including XLS and XLSX (Excel), ODS (OpenOffice.org), CSV, TXT, TSV (tab-separated values) and TAB. I found that a few OpenOffice.org spreadsheet files wouldn't import correctly -- for example, background colors of cells were dropped. Some formulas set to calculate data taken from multiple sheets in a spreadsheet would no longer work. I had to manually tweak these formulas so the application would recognize them correctly. Spreadsheet handled converting Excel files better, which seems odd considering that OpenOffice.org uses open file formats.

Each sheet of a spreadsheet is denoted as a tab along the bottom of the application. Because it's an online application, flipping through multiple sheets in a spreadsheet -- especially if you've got a lot of data -- isn't a snappy experience, and it may take each page a second or two to load.

If you don't have enough rows on the spreadsheet, you can scroll down to an "Add" button and a fill-in box set to the lower-left below the sheet: Enter a number, click the button, and your spreadsheet will grow down by that many rows. Unfortunately, there is no similarly convenient button to quickly add more columns in multiple amounts. Otherwise, to insert multiple numbers of rows or columns, you highlight several rows or columns and then right-click to add that number of rows or columns.

Unlike the Drawing and Presentation applications, Spreadsheet doesn't offer the ability to zoom in or out of a spreadsheet (Document also lacks this feature). This can be an issue if you're working on a large spreadsheet -- whether designing it or filling it out -- because you can't zoom out to see the whole picture unless your browser offers this capability.

You can download your spreadsheet in a variety of formats, including XLS (Excel), ODS (OpenOffice.org), PDF, CSV, HTML or TXT.

Presentation

Presentation is essentially a simplified slide-show builder. It's meant mainly for assembling a linear sequence of slides to use in business or academic presentations, but it's possible to use it to build frame-by-frame animations if you have the skill (and determination).

You make an individual slide by inserting graphical elements such as text and tables -- or importing images from your local computer, a Picasa album or a Google Image search -- onto a blank page. You can then drag and drop and resize these elements to fit the way you want them to appear on the slide.

Click the toolbar buttons in the upper left of the application or right-click in the work area to add, remove and rearrange the playing order of the slides. You can also drag and drop the thumbnails that run along the left side of the work area to do this.

The thing to be aware of is that, for the most part, you can't use Presentation to build media-rich slide shows. You can embed a video from YouTube in a slide, but that's about it. You can't import MP3s or a large variety of video clips for use in a slide show -- even videos you've uploaded to your Google Docs account.

Slideshow presentations can be downloaded as PowerPoint or PDF files. You can also pull up a mini version of Drawing within Presentation to create line drawings or put predrawn shapes into a slide. But I think it's easier to simply launch the separate version of Drawing on its own, draw and finish your images and then insert them into Presentation.

Drawing

Drawing, which allows users to create flow charts and other line-based graphics, has also improved. It gives you the tools to draw straight lines, curves and arcs, or you can draw lines freehand.

Besides presets for inserting circles, rectangles, triangles and other polygons, there's a large selection of other shapes -- variations on stars, arrows and speech bubbles, for example. Their fill-in color can be whatever you want.

Lines and shape elements can be dragged and dropped throughout the work area, and their sizes or rotations can be adjusted. Clicking on a line or shape marks it with anchor points that you can click on and drag to alter the line's or shape's size. The layer order of these elements (i.e. whether one shape lies over or under another) can be changed.

A relatively new feature, introduced in December, is the ability to add connectors to your shapes that will move with those shapes, making it much easier to create and edit flow charts.

You can add editable text to your drawing -- you can change the style (bold, italic, underline), color and size, but not the typeface. You can also add word art -- text as a graphical element that you can rotate, change its color or style (to bold and/or italic), and choose from among 10 fonts for it.

Your drawings can be downloaded as a JPG or PNG image, a PDF document, or as a scalable vector line graphic file (SVG format).

Drawing can be launched either as its own separate application or as a tool from within Document, Presentation or Spreadsheet. By clicking "Insert" and choosing "Drawing" from the toolbar of these applications, a mini version of Drawing appears within a smaller window. When you're finished with your drawing, you click "Save & Close" and your artwork is inserted into the document, presentation or spreadsheet.

Form

Form is a very basic application that makes it easy to quickly create a simple online survey.

You just type in the title of your survey, any explanatory text you need and your questions. You can choose the kind of response you want for each question, including multiple-choice, checklist and ratings-scale formats. A number of themes are available to pep up the finished look of your survey as it will appear online.

Once you're finished, Google Docs lets you email or embed a link to your online survey. You can view the responses you've received either as a summary within Forms or as a separate spreadsheet document.

Conclusions

With Microsoft's announcement on June 28 that Office 365 had left its beta status behind and was officially launched, the market for Web-based suites of office applications became even more crowded. (Other similar suites include ThinkFree Online and Zoho.) To declare that the Web is killing the traditional desktop office suite may be premature, but the concept of online office suites appears to be gaining momentum as a norm rather than cloud hype.

Having passed the two-year mark, Google Docs has grown into a strong alternative to, in particular, desktop word processing and spreadsheet applications, and it offers the basic features that most people would expect.

It doesn't feel quite like Google Docs has entered its 2.0 phase, though -- perhaps that will happen with the return of offline functionality and if Google figures innovative ways to incorporate its new social networking service, Google+, with Google Docs. (For example, imagine playing your slide shows from Presentation directly to a group videoconference in Google+.)

What's good about Google Docs right now are the individual components. Over time all the changes and tweaks to it, and those sure to come, look to be adding up to a better whole.

Sidebar: Google Docs go mobile

Want to use Google Docs on a mobile device? Users of Android devices can make use of a Google Docs app, while iPhone and iPad users have access to a website formatted for mobile devices. But how well do these work?

Android

Here's the good news: If you've got an Android device and use Google Docs, you'll find the Android app simple and straightforward to use, giving you easy access to all your files. Here's the bad news: It's not going to replace the Google Docs website on a computer anytime soon. But if all you're looking to do is read existing files and occasionally make simple edits, you'll find it perfectly suitable.

The app features a plain home screen with icons for browsing your documents: all items, starred items, images and so on. Tap the More icon to view only text documents, only spreadsheets or only presentations.

Once you choose which documents you want to browse -- "All items" for example -- you'll be brought to a simple listing. From this screen, you can view any individual document by tapping on the document name; you can also click on icons to either search through all of your documents, or create a new document. And if you want to see a listing of all your starred documents, or those "owned" by you (in other words, those you created), you can access it simply by swiping to the left or right.

The search feature is especially useful, because it very quickly searches through entire documents and lists those that include your search term. You can then change the sort order, view only documents "owned" by you that match the search or view documents that are starred that match the search.

The app does a very nice job of viewing documents, retaining original formatting so that you can see documents exactly as they were created. And it's reasonably useful if you want to do some very simple edits -- you can add and delete text, but nothing really beyond that. It includes a PDF viewer as well.

Once you get beyond viewing and editing Google Docs-formatted documents, though, the app isn't particularly useful. For example, you don't have any real access to files you have stored with Google Docs if they haven't been converted to the Google Docs format.

So if you're just looking for a way to view and edit your Google Docs documents, the Google Docs app is perfectly fine. But don't expect anything beyond that.

-- Preston Gralla

iOS

While there isn't a Google Docs iOS app available, the platform is still accessible from an iPhone or iPad. When you access Google Docs on the Web from either device, you're forwarded to a mobile version of Docs that is functional but not without limitations.

Using the mobile version of Google Docs, you can browse, open and view every document type that Docs supports. However, editing is available only for text documents and spreadsheets. Drawings, presentations and collections are view-only, as are documents that contain images or tables.

Editing documents is simple and straightforward, although you can't do much more than add and change text. Spreadsheets are shown only in list view, which does allow data entry but limits the value of being able to review data, trends and calculations.

If these limitations become too frustrating, there are a handful of Office-like suites available for the iPad that, like Google Docs, offer the ability to access documents stored on cloud services. These suites include Quickoffice, Documents To Go and Office2. Another app, GogoDocs, automatically syncs Google Docs to your iOS device.

-- Ryan Faas

Howard Wen reports for several technology publications. His website can be found at www.howardwen.com.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesGoogleinternet

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Ryan Faas

Computerworld (US)

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