A Closer Look at Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Google has integrated its online spreadsheet and word processor into a single free service that’s now available to anyone with a Google account. How does it compare to Microsoft Word & Excel?

Google jumped into the word processing game with its purchase of Writely last March. In June, Google launched an online spreadsheet product based in part on technology acquired from 2Web Technologies, which made XL2Web. Until recently, both products were not widely available, limited to a select few users.

That changed last week when Google unified the two products under the Google Docs & Spreadsheets moniker, making both products available to anyone with a Google account.

Despite the flurry of speculation that Google was finally competing head-to-head against Microsoft Office, these two products aren’t really directly competitive with Word or Excel—yet. Rather, they are compelling, lightweight alternatives that are useful for some tasks, but simply aren’t as muscular as the Office programs that run on your own computer.

That’s not a bad thing. Microsoft has long been criticized for producing bloated products with countless features that few people use. Google Docs & Spreadsheets both focus on the core features that most people probably use on a regular basis. The menus for both are simple, with intuitive icons for common functions and features along the top, and a couple of tabs that provide access to less frequently used features.

This simple interface is in stark contrast to the menus for both Word and Excel, where you often have to hunt around to find features that you may not use on a regular basis. Of course, that also means that Google Docs & Spreadsheets simply can’t do some of the things that Word and Excel can—for example, creating large documents with multiple chapters with a table of contents and index generated automatically, or creating graphs and charts embedded within a spreadsheet. These features will likely come in the future, however.

Both the Docs and Spreadsheets products offer the ability to collaborate on a document or spreadsheet with others. You can invite others to either edit or simply view documents and spreadsheets that you’ve created. This is one of the strongest features of Google Docs & Spreadsheets, making it easy to work with others without having to email attachments to others.

Google also automatically tracks revisions to documents and spreadsheets, and makes it easy to revert back to a previous version if you don’t want to keep changes. No more multiple, awkward filenames to keep versions straight.

You can upload existing Word or Excel files (up to 500K), either through a simple built-in utility or by emailing the files using a special address.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets has a simple file management interface that displays all of the files you or your collaborators have worked on over the past 30 days. To open a file for editing, simply click on its link. You can also save files in several formats to your local hard disk, archive files or delete them.

Google Docs (though not Spreadsheets) also provides some quick publishing tools. One lets you publish a document with a unique address (URL) on google.com that you can share with others. You can also upload a document as a post to your blog.

There are several downsides to Google Docs & Spreadsheets. First, of course, is that you must be online and logged in to use them. You can save local copies to your computer that you can easily edit with Word or Excel, but if you’re in an airplane and needing a copy of a document that exists only online you’re out of luck.

There are also technical issues—I used Google Docs to write this review, and twice saw “server error” messages that asked me to wait for 30 seconds to try again. On occasion, the programs were sluggish, with a slight delay between typing and characters appearing on screen.

And although Google Docs & Spreadsheets has a straightforward privacy policy, there are still many legal gray areas that could potentially require Google to hand over private documents, though this hasn’t yet happened.

I also suspect, despite Google’s best efforts at protecting user privacy, that most medium to larger sized organizations simply wouldn’t take the risk of outsourcing the security of their documents and spreadsheets. For smaller businesses or individuals, however, the price (free) and ease of use make Google Docs & Spreadsheets a very compelling alternative to Word and Excel.

Looking for alternatives? Microsoft Office Live, although it doesn’t explicitly refer to online versions of Word or Excel, is currently free while in beta.

Several other companies provide online word processors, spreadsheets and even other tools that are part of Microsoft Office, such as presentation software and project management tools. A partial list includes gOffice, FlySuite, ThinkFree and Zoho.

Want to comment on Google Docs & Spreadsheets? Please comment in our Search Engine Watch Forums thread, Google Spreadsheets Launches, Takes On Microsoft.

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