Google Docs is a fantastic free online application that offers some exciting features. However, by virtue of being an online application, users with a slow connection will experience lag, and Docs still doesn't contain enough functionality to be a replacement for today's mainstay office suites in most businesses.
Google Docs forms one part of Google Apps, which also includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk and Google Sites. Businesses looking to deploy Google Docs via the subscription pay for the Google Apps package, but this review will only focus on the Google Docs component.
Google's Documents word processor.
Google Docs is essentially identical regardless of whether a business subscribes to Google Apps or just uses the free version, with a couple of important exceptions. Subscriptions guarantees that Google Docs will remain ad-free, and also add email and telephone support for administrators. However, most features of Google Apps revolve around security, Gmail and integration. Subscription to Google Apps costs US$50 per user, per year.
Google guarantees 99.9 per cent uptime with the US$50 subscription. This may look good on paper, but it means you should bank on Google Apps being down for a third of a day each year (roughly eight hours and 45 minutes). Consider this carefully before deployment.
Several comparisons can be made in approaching a review of Google Docs. One might treat it as an office suite, comparing it to Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org. Or, you could treat it as an online application, comparing it to Zoho or Salesforce.
You might even consider it as an addition to a free Web email client, and compare it to Yahoo or Microsoft Live. In truth, all, and none of the above comparisons are useful, as Google Docs is a hybrid of those different types of offerings. For the purposes of this review we will treat Google Docs principally as an online office application.
Trust is a big issue for businesses looking to deploy Google Docs. Integrating the Web application into your business means transferring potentially sensitive data to a third party. Google is secretive about what security precautions it takes, but has previously confirmed it would disclose information to parties like the US government if required to by law.
Google fought hard against media giant Viacom who wanted the company to hand over IP addresses and private information on YouTube users, but was eventually required to do so in the US.
However, despite trust issues, several large organisations have rolled out the applications, including a UK Newspaper, and an NZ university. Google recently claimed 3,000 businesses were signing up for the service every day.
Google Docs also allows you to upload and open existing documents you have created in MS Office, OpenOffice, or other applications. While this is a great feature, it's far from perfect, as Google will remove features of your documents that aren't supported in Google Docs.
We tried several documents, and lost our graphs from Excel documents and some of our tables from Word files. Google Docs also allows you to download your documents to PDF, RTF, text formats and in some cases HTML documents. Google gets extra points for these download formats.
By virtue of being an online application, the speed of Google Docs is limited by your connection speed. People with a slow internet connection will experience notable lag when using this application, and this can make the whole process frustrating, or even unusable.
Google Docs is still in beta, meaning we expect to see gradual improvements to the application in future. For example, one recent improvement is Google Gears, which keeps some functionality running when the internet connection is lost.
Google Docs delivers a clean and refreshing interface that is great for creating simple documents. Those who love Microsoft's retrofit of Office for the 2007 version would probably feel at home. However, experts who use the full functionality of Word will quickly get frustrated as they find most of it missing in Google's version.
A range of basic formatting features are included, such as superscript, subscript and block quotes. There is also a diverse range of special characters, including any Unicode character. Google Documents also creates tables, but there are no fancy table formatting options.
Google's file sharing capability.
Google Docs is also great for writing for the Web, as it has almost no auto-formatting and only uses characters native to the Web: unlike Microsoft Word, which famously creates text with special characters that Web browsers can't handle. Fixed page view pushes long words (like URLs) off the edge of the page.
By and large, Documents is a solid online application for simple document creation.
One of the biggest advantages that Google Documents (and the whole Google Docs suite) has over its offline rivals relates to its ability to quickly and easily share documents between friends or colleagues without having to email each other copies.
On the bottom-left hand corner of this screenshot you can see an option to make your document available to anyone else who has a free Google log-in. This means you don't have to pass around a shared document by email or store it on an in-house file server. You can just email a link to your colleagues and they can add in their own sales figures for the month.
Microsoft is starting to address this functionality with its own Office Live suite.
No points for guessing what this part of Google Docs is designed to do, but you might be surprised by some of its features. For example, Presentations allows you to embed movies directly into your presentations from YouTube.
This is a nice feature but clearly a play to integrate another Google brand, as you can't embed your own videos which aren't on YouTube. Formatting features are basic but useful, you might miss the ability to embed animations or sounds. We managed to embed custom images into our presentation, but Google is slow to upload, even for small images.
If you upload your fancy presentation from PowerPoint into Docs, you may lose formatting as Docs cuts them down to its limited feature set.
Click to next page to read about Spreadsheets, and our verdict.
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