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Google your way to an online Office alternative
Member Name: pookie_rabbit
Advantages: Free online alternative to the likes of Microsoft Office
Disadvantages: Nowhere near as many features as Microsoft Office
Most people have used Microsoft Office or if not one of its competitors such as StarOffice. Most of these office "suites" tend to include at the very least a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation system in the case of Microsoft Office, Word, Excel and PowerPoint respectively. By default most people seem to end up with these office packages on there home or work computer even if in truth they use about 10% of the features that they offer. I know people who have bought Office and use as many features in Microsoft Word that can actually be found in WordPad or Notepad that ship with Windows by default. If you use an office suite its also pretty hard to share and collaborate on documents even with added infrastructure in place such as Microsoft SharePoint sites used by some businesses. Normally you end up e-mailing people copies of the document which then comes back to you with changes and hey presto - you now have 2 copies of the file. You also need to worry about the backup of your data because the documents you create tend to be stored on your hard disk or on a file server somewhere.
Google Docs is a free online alternative - actually offline too as I will explain shortly - that includes the ability to create all three of the standard files you would expect in an office suite - documents, spreadsheets and presentations as well as "forms" which are used to create spreadsheets too. Basically the system runs within your web browser be that Internet Explorer, Firefox or whatever and for this reason doesn't care what operating system you are running on either be it Windows, Ubuntu or something like your mobile phone. Because its a Google service my initial thought was that the system would be unavailable if I didn't have an internet connection. This isn't the case. Yes you need to be online to sign up for the service and synchronise your data but if you install something called Google Gears an offline copy of all our your documents are available when not connected to the internet. I will cover working offline a little later.
Another big advantage is that your documents are stored online so if you need them you can get them anytime from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. This is unlike the standard situation you will find yourself in with documents on your actual hard disk. As I said earlier I should also repeat the important fact that Google docs is free.
Creating an account..
This is very quick and easy. Just visit the http://docs.google.com web site and sign up. If you already have a google mail account you are ready to go. If not just enter a valid e-mail address and create a password. I will mention it later but if you want to use Docs offline (i.e. with no internet connection) you are better signing in with a googlemail account.
Using the various applications..
The Docs interface
When you open Docs you first see a list of your documents sorted by default on date modified. This can be changed to view by name etc. You can also create folders at this point which show along the left hand side of the screen. Using these you can organise your documents which can be put into these folders using drag and drop. Each document shows information such as when it was last modified and if its shared with other people. You can rename and delete documents from here and also search through all of your documents for certain keywords. It is here by that you start new documents by clicking on the "Create new" button.
You firstly create a new document from a blank sheet or from a template. In case you aren't used to the various office suites a template is a predefined format to base the new document on. containing information you would add to every document based on it. Docs come with an impressive array of these either created by Google or by other people who have submitted them. These include the likes of resume/CV's, cover letters, basic invoices, business plans, fax cover sheets etc. Templates are also available for the spreadsheets and presentations.
Either way you end up with the typing screen which will look pretty much like any "windows" based word processor you may have used. Most of the tool bar options people are used to are there, File, Edit etc.
All of the standard stuff is there for "basic" word processing - changing the font, size, bolding, italic etc and adding tables if needed. You can also create headers, footers, paragraph styles, do spell checking, add images etc.
How does it compare with say Microsoft Word 2007. Well its not in the same league as far as features go's - what you have to ask is how many of these do you actually use though?
The one thing I did find a bit fiddly was formatting tables. I guess I am used to how easy this is in Microsoft Word and found just moving the size of columns to be a bit of a hassle. One thing I found very useful however was "revisions" which allows you to go back to an older version of your document. I found this useful on a couple of occasions after accidentally deleting a chunk of text and saving my document.
Like the word processing this is again a very usable application. I use this to do my home accounts but in all honesty I dont use spreadsheets for much more than that with simple additions. Would I be able to just use this if I was a top financial type person - I doubt it. However it does have some nifty little features such as online look up of company share ticker information for example.
Of all the Office applications I find Excel gets the most use from power users and they want the big features. A lot of those features are just not available in Google Docs.
I have been a big user of Microsoft Powerpoint since its inception but generally I would have to say that I don't really use any more features now (even though there are loads!) than I did when I first used it. I have slides with a background with information on them and that's about it. When you create a new slide you get the option of 5 different slide layouts. For this the presentation part seems to work fine. You can also add standard stuff such as speaker notes. You can also do things such as insert video for instance which allows you to search YouTube and also insert an image and point to a web location for the image.
As I said earlier with the word processing you can base your presentation on a number of predefined templates.
Collaborating is one of the really good things about using Google Docs. Let me give an example of how 3 people (I will be original and just call them X, Y and Z!) who are working on a presentation based newsletter for the local football team might currently do this. Lets presume all have Microsoft Office and each has a e-mail account at the likes of Yahoo! and Hotmail etc. Lets say X creates a presentation in PowerPoint and then e-mails this to Y and Z to see what they think and to change it and add things as necessary. Both of these have to save the file from e-mail and work on it and send it back. X receives both back via e-mail, saves them and has to look through both to merge them together. X now has three different version of the presentation to contend with. With Google docs you don't send an attachment you send a link and give people the chance to work online with it directly. To do this you just open the document, click the "share" button and provide the e-mail addresses of the people who need to work on it. If these are accounts that have Google Docs they can just open them up and work on them. When complete X can publish the presentation directly onto the internet for the team members to view it. You also get supplied with code so you can embed this into a current web site or post it on a blog.
As previously mentioned I had thought that I would have to be connected to the internet to work with Docs. This is not the case and you have an "offline" button within Docs. When you click this for the first time you are prompted to install Google Gears. This makes any documents you have created available offline (basically it copies them down to your hard disk). From a security point of view this isn't something you would particularly want to do on a shared computer however.
Generally speaking I found the offline access to work fine with a couple of exceptions. Firstly (and I couldn't personally find this in the online help) you have to be using a google account name to log in - i.e. when you create an account you can use any login name or a NAME@googlemail.com account. Only the latter seem to work offline. Secondly making my documents offline via a company proxy/firewall did not work correctly - a direct connection to the internet fixed this. You also have to install Gears for each web browser you use - for instance on my machine I had to install it for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. When you exit and enter Docs your documents are synchronised so the latest versions or are on both the compute and the internet. Overall the whole offline system seems to work pretty well
Integration with other office suites..
The biggest problem you will have with Docs is the integration with current office suites and working with other people who are still using them. If you want to import documents into Docs then you should be fine with most formats although certain features are not supported such as footnotes, tables of contents and pivot tables for example. You can import word processed documents in most of the formats produced by Microsoft Office and StarOffice for instance. There are some size limitations that may catch you out however - Word documents for instance can only be 500 KB in size which is pretty small. Spreadsheets are a little better at 1MB and presentations from PowerPoint can be imported up to 10MB in size. I personally have a lot of files over this size which I was unable to import however this is often down to bad formatting of the documents in the first place - see my review on NX PowerLite for more information on this. In my tests most Word, Excel and PowerPoint files uploaded fine.
One problem you wont get round easily though is getting e-mailed a large Word document for instance from another source. If you receive a small Word document to your googlemail account you can open it in Docs or view it as HTML. However if its large as mentioned above you can only view it in HTML format so cant edit it.
Clearly Microsoft Office is the competition for Google Docs that you would normally install on your PC. Google aren't taking on Microsoft as far as operating systems go anytime soon so have wisely taken the approach that you don't actually need a certain operating system to install an office suite on or rather it doesn't matter which one you use as long as you have a web browser. Google Docs has online competition as well though in the likes of ThinkFree and Zoho which are also very usable. For me Google has the advantage other these already with its brand name and the tie in with the very popular Google Mail.
Is this the death of Microsoft Office then? Certainly not yet. Firstly if you need the extra features that the various parts of that suite offer you aren't going to get them just yet in Google Docs.
None of the Google applications have anywhere near the same number of options that Microsoft Office have - but do you need them all ? I don't doubt though that Google are adding new features all the time to try and catch up. Secondly because such a large number of people already use Microsoft Office and have trained on it in shook, college and previous work no business is going to want to change to another system anytime soon. Finally large documents maybe received via e-mail cannot be opened or imported into Docs. Microsoft though must be looking at these online packages and no they have to offer more down that route soon and have started addressing this with "OfficeLive" which has online collaboration and I will try and review at some point also.
Many people, and certainly organisations, will also be concerned that there data is stored on a file server somewhere on the internet that is not under there control. Its unlikely but what if Google you loose your data because of a crash, virus or hacking?
Where I think Google Docs is ahead of Microsoft Office without having to get extra infrastructure in place is collaboration though. Its quite scary that in my own "Microsoft" work environment we are constantly having problems with limits on disk space, e-mail size, sharing files between sites that have low bandwidth connections and that our users would actually be better using Google Docs in some respects. Clearly in a corporate environment you dont want to be loosing control of your systems like this with people just signing up to these sort of services.
You also have to consider the ease of upgrades. When you decide to upgrade from Office whatever to the latest version you may have to do this on anything from one to thousands of computers. New versions of Google Docs will just be there so there are no upgrade hassles to worry about. With Office you also have to worry about the data - if you are not storing it on local machines you need a back-end server to store it. And if on local machines how are you backing the data up?
As far as speed goes using Google Docs its a double edged sword. Its an online service and I have found it fine as far as this goes. If you have want to compare it with Office it very much depends if you have this installed on a very slow or fast machine On a final note I should mention I had previously read some time ago about problems connecting to Google Docss and various errors people were getting. In the time I have been using it I haven't failed to get on to do my work.
If you work for a decent sized company then I suspect you wont be moving away from the likes of Microsoft Office anytime soon. If you are home user, small office or club/etc. then I would say Google Docs is worth a look especially for the collaboration tools and if you dont wont to have to worry about file servers etc. to store you data. As your business grows then maybe its worth looking at Google Apps which is the premium service for Docs. Clearly some sort of online collaboration options are the future and dont be surprised to see an online version of Microsoft Office in some shape or form sometime soon. I rate Google Docs as highly as I do Microsoft Office but for the different reasons and they cant be compared like for like. Google Docs is just very good at the target audience it is currently aimed at.
Summary: Certainly woth a look if you currently have no office software installed