Google Docs beta

Summary: 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.

  • Editors' rating:
    0.0
  • User rating:
    0.0

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.
(Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

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.

Document
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.
(Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

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.

Presentations
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.

Spreadsheets
Most people are likely to use Google spreadsheets for keeping shopping lists, but we wanted to see a lot more than that. That being said, Google Speadsheets is a great place to keep a shopping list.

We took it a bit further and tested Spreadsheets as a mathematical tool. We weren't disappointed. We particularly like that when we enter formulas, Google spreadsheets shows a mini-box which explains the format of the formula.

Spreadsheets offers a diverse range of formulas; we couldn't find anything we wanted that wasn't there. Judging from the range of formulas offered, Google Spreadsheets is geared toward financial analysis.

By virtue or being an online application, Google Spreadsheets also offers a range of dynamic formulas, allowing you to, for example, pull stock quotes from Google Finance. You can also pull information from a data source of your choosing. We see the possibility of dynamically updating spreadsheets as an exciting feature, especially in financial analysis. This is the future of the spreadsheet.

However, as a tool for data analysis, Google Spreadsheets' weakness is its graphs. For example, using Google Spreadsheets to predict how quickly your Gmail inbox increases in size will give you a very accurate answer but a poor graph:

Google Spreadsheets struggles with narrow data ranges on large values, as axis ranges can't be modified. (Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

This is because you cannot edit the data ranges of graphs in Spreadsheets. Compare this to Excel, a nice clean linear increase, and you see the problem. For those who are curious, our 10-minute experiment extrapolated a Gmail inbox size increase rate of a slightly under 1.5GB per year.

Excel has no such issues, showing a nice linear increase in Gmail inbox size. (Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

However, spreadsheets makes up for its lacklustre graphs with its interesting gadgets. Highlights include the ability to shade a map of the world based on your own data. Gadgets aren't simple, you will need to do a fair bit of fiddling to get them to work. For example to get world map to shade by value, you will need to enter a country ISO code. They also are not very versatile, you generally have to use them exactly for what they are intended for. Despite this, they are an interesting and unique feature of Docs.

Google Gears
Google Gears is software that allows you to take online applications offline. Gears is free and open source. Installing Gears is a simple process, and the download file is around 500 kilobytes. Simply run it and then restart your browser.

Once you're offline Google Docs becomes a lot more limited in functionality. To begin with, you cannot create new documents, which is a real show stopper. In addition, Google doesn't seem to be able to dynamically switch between offline and online documents. You need to switch it every time. For example, if you know you're going into a blackspot, you can't simply switch Docs to offline, you have to sign out, disconnect and relaunch your browser. Clearly Docs is not designed to work offline, and its integration with Gears is a work in progress.

Forms
We think forms is one of the most interesting parts of Google Docs, because it is a unique feature we wouldn't normally find in offline office applications. The only rival we know of for this application is Zoho Creator.

Forms allows you to create a range of question types including multiple choice, numerical answers, paragraph answers and more. Once forms have been created they can then be emailed to recipients, or shared online. Answers to your forms are then automatically collated in a spreadsheet.

Forms is a great application in our books, given its potential to rapidly collect a vast amount of data quickly. Collaboration on a spreadsheet containing collected data provides the potential to gain extra value from survey results.

Verdict
We're not going to pull any punches, we think Google Docs is an outstanding value proposition, and an excellent online application. Through the free edition, businesses can trial the application before migrating to the paid software as a service model if they need the additional functionality that comes with subscription. Collaboration on a single document has the potential to boost productivity. Free online storage is highly valuable, especially to business travellers.

However, Google Docs still doesn't contain enough functionality to be a replacement for today's mainstay office suites in most businesses, despite some interesting features.

Businesses looking to deploy Google Docs should check out rival Zoho before making a final decision, but if you're looking to work with an online office applications, Google Docs is a great offering.

Topics: Cloud, Google, Reviews

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