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Is there a fresh start underway for Google Docs?

Google acknowledges user issues and promises improvements including a significant upgrade for its Presentation editor which is already available as an opt-in setting.

Earlier this week, I wrote that Google Docs is the one thing I don’t like about Google Apps and it generated a lot of feedback, including some good (and some not-so-good) suggestions for dealing with my challenges.

Not surprisingly, that post also caught the eye of Google which setup a meeting the next day with some Google Docs product experts to talk about my issues and hopefully provide some solutions.  What I learned is important.  Not just for me but also anyone else who relies on Google Apps at home or in business.

In short, Google acknowledged that my general complaints about Google Docs (mostly problems with formatting, converting, uploading, and importing presentations) are not uncommon but, as it turns out, they’ve actually been testing an opt-in upgrade since October that will be the default as soon as January 2012.

Not sure how I missed it because it’s been quietly available since October, but all I had to do was go to the Document settings in Google Docs, select Editing, and click on New version of Google presentations.  That’s it.  Pretty straight forward but Google it if you need more information.

Google says this is just the latest in a series of ongoing Google Docs improvements for what it calls “information work sharing.”  They say their goal is to help people get to what they need, share it, and make it beautiful.  I never had any issues with getting to what I need and sharing it.  That’s exactly what I like the most about Google Apps in general.  It really was the whole making it beautiful part that could be so frustrating.

Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, these guys were passionate and I really liked everything they said so I ran a series of simple tests to see if they had in fact addressed my challenges with all of the improvements they say they’re making or if this was really just a case of good public relations.

My methodology was simple.

First, I created original documents that are most typical for me using each of the Google Docs applications (i.e. Document, Spreadsheet, and Presentation) and then saved, printed, and shared each one to make sure they held up as I intended.

(Note: I purposely did not test the Google Docs Drawing editor because I wouldn’t normally use it but would instead tend to use the drawing tools that are native within the application I’m already using such as Presentation or PowerPoint.)

No real problems and I was especially impressed by the Presentation editor (my biggest complaint) which after a bit of a learning curve on my part allowed me to create exactly what is typical for me in my job as a managing editor.

Although it wasn’t a big deal for me, I did have trouble printing my presentation in landscape mode and ended up using the Windows system dialog (Control+Shift+P) which worked just fine.  Apparently, the landscape feature just isn’t available in Google Docs Presentation which seems odd, especially for those who want to print presentations but aren’t necessarily familiar with this limitation.  I’m sure it could get real frustrating real fast under certain circumstances.

Next was the issue of conversion.  For this I chose to convert Microsoft Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents into their corresponding Google Docs alternatives.

The spreadsheet I converted from Microsoft Excel appeared didn’t appear to have any problems and the only problem I had converting a Microsoft Word document was that a set of three bullets changed from blue to black.  We use blue font for some of our corporate presentations but I never really liked it so this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise anyway.

Most importantly for me, I could not detect a single difference between the original Microsoft PowerPoint I converted and the Google Docs presentation version.  Plus, I was able to make whatever edits I wanted without any issues whatsoever.   Now I’m impressed because this has been a big issue for me and now apparently it isn’t.   Happy days.

The final test was uploading and importing files into Google Docs in their original format.  Again, PowerPoint was the leading pain-point here for me, especially larger files with lots of graphics.

Starting with Word, I had the same problem I had with the converted file changing blue bullets black which, again, was not a big deal but this time I figured I’d try to make the bullet match the color of the text that followed it.  No luck, and from what I can tell, others have the same complaint as well.   Bye bye corporate blue font if I want it to match my bullets.  Good for me but not for someone who doesn’t have the option of arbitrarily rejecting their company style guide.

At first, the Excel spreadsheet upload looked like it was going south but then I clicked the Edit Online button in the upper right hand corner of Google Docs and it seemed fine.  Not sure why it appeared so badly before that but I’m sure that Google has some kind of answer.  Like the black bullet in Word, it was really nothing more than a little off-putting and the Import feature worked beautifully.

Uploading a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation in its original format went well enough and I was able to easily download the original again which looked exactly the same as what I uploaded.  Unfortunately, I uploaded a .pptx though and wasn’t able to Edit Online the way I was with the Excel spreadsheet.  That required a down-conversion first from .pptx to .ppt.  Rather than down-converting, I found another .ppt to upload but even then the uploaded file ended up with some corrupted graphics.  Again, just as it had for the uploaded Excel spreadsheet, the PowerPoint import feature worked great though and I was able to easily Import and edit additional slides from another presentation without any problems.

So, where does that leave me with my original point of view that Google Docs is the one thing I don’t like about Google Apps?  Well, if nothing else, I feel better educated and probably needed a jolt to remind me that Google Apps is not Microsoft which I’ve been working with a lot longer.

There are still some nuances with Google Docs that catch me off-guard but they’re minor and after speaking with Google, I realize that it’s often just a matter of learning a new way of doing things.  It is getting better, however, and the changes they’ve made to the Presentation editor really are quite remarkable (they claim four years of progress with one upgrade) and for that reason alone I will happily take back what I said about Google Docs being the one thing I don’t like about Google Apps.

It's still the thing I like the least about Google Apps but I can no longer say I don't like it and I do believe it’s improving.