Working offline with Google Docs

For some mobile professionals, Google Docs may be a viable alternative to Microsoft Office

Google recently added a welcome feature to Google Docs, its free Web-based office productivity tool set, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps. It's called Google Docs Offline, and as its name suggests, the feature enables you to edit Google documents without being connected to the Internet.

Third-party workarounds, such as one that syncs OpenOffice.org documents to Google Docs, have already made it possible to work with Google Docs without an Internet connection. But Google Docs Offline eliminates the need for such workarounds. The feature makes Google Docs an easy-to-use, viable alternative to Microsoft Office desktop software for frequent fliers or anyone who must work at times without Internet access.

There are other advantages to working with Google Docs, too, such as free online document backup. I've been using Google Docs online and off for several weeks now. Overall, I'm impressed--though I'm not ready to cut the Microsoft Office cord just yet.

This week, I'll report on what I like about using Google Docs. Next week: What I dislike, and my recommendations for who might benefit from Google Docs.

By the way: Google Docs is just one software-as-a-service option for sharing, storing, and/or creating office productivity documents via the Web. Others include Zoho, which added offline editing to its Writer application last year; Microsoft Office Live Workspace, a free service that offers online storage and sharing to Microsoft Office users; and Microsoft's recently announced Live Mesh.

Likes: Access from Multiple Devices, Free Online Backup

The potential advantages of Google Docs for mobile professionals are considerable, especially for those who use multiple devices. For instance, you could access your files from your home desktop, a laptop, your iPhone, or any other device with a Web browser. There's no need to synchronize files between those devices. And you don't have to use a remote-access service, as you would when your files exist solely on one computer.

With Google Docs, you could easily go cross platform, too. You could use, say, an ultrathin MacBook Air during your travels and a powerful Dell desktop at the office. You wouldn't have to worry about file incompatibilities, because everything with Google Docs is done through a Web browser. (File incompatibilities between Macs and PCs, though greatly minimized in recent years, can still occur.)

Also, backing up online, to hard drives or to USB thumb drives, isn't necessary with Google Docs. Your documents already live online. As long as you feel comfortable trusting Google's servers not to crash, you've got no worries.

When asked about the potential for losing user documents due to hardware or other failure, a Google spokesperson responded via e-mail: "We have multiple and extensive safeguards in place to protect our users' data, and we have a very strong track record when it comes to protecting users' data. We protect vast amounts of data as a regular part of our business, so our infrastructure is extremely strong and reliable." No further details were offered.

FYI: Google Docs allows you to store up to 5000 documents and 5000 images, which should be ample space for many users. There are some limitations, however. Word processing documents can't be larger than 500KB; presentations can be up to 10MB; spreadsheets can have up to 10,000 rows, and so on. Google details file size limits in the Google Docs Help Section.

With Google Docs, you can easily share and collaborate on documents. When you share a Google Docs file, your collaborators receive an e-mail invitation from you, with a link to the document. You can allow others to edit your docs, too, in real time. Multiple people can edit the same document simultaneously, and Google Docs frequently saves each version from each collaborator, in case you want to roll back to a previous version. You can also grant others view-only access. At a minimum, sharing Google Docs eliminates the need to e-mail large presentations, which may cause the recipient's ISP to bounce the message back.

Working Offline With Google Docs

Then there's the Google Docs Offline feature that's currently being rolled out.

To use this feature, you must install Google Gears, a browser extension that enables Web applications to run offline. Google Docs caches your document files onto your computer's hard drive. When you're offline, click the icon that Google Docs installs on your desktop; this will launch Google Docs in your default browser. You can access the most recently saved versions of your documents and make changes. (As of this writing, Google Docs Offline only lets you make changes to word processing documents when not online; presentations and spreadsheets are not yet supported.) When you reconnect to the Internet, changes made are automatically uploaded to and synced with your Google Docs documents online.

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James A. Martin

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