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Rating: 5/5 2 Votes

Google Docs Review

Google Docs Review

You know that crazy bird that sells the cocoa puffs, Sonny... I think his name is. Anyway he is always Cucoo for cocoa puffs, and makes it well known. That's what I always think of when someone tells me about a new application, or feature from Google. Everyone seems to be GOOGLE for Google stuff! Google seems to be the solution for everything to a point that the word Google is a noun, a verb, and I believe an adjective now. You could probably name an entire sentice using just the word Google.

What I am getting at is that Google is making a bigger and bigger push to replace desktop software with web applications. Obviously these applications are the ones that they make, and can put ads on or around. Recently they have started a huge billboard campaign trying to get people to realise the power of their applications (I assume that's the goal). On top of that I read a story where the City of Los Angeles is thinking of using Google Docs and Google mail to replace the Microsoft Office package they are currently using.

So it is about time that someone sits down and gives a real world review of Google docs, can it really cut the mustard as a full replacement?

Let me start with the positives to the "Application Suite".

The Pros:

Google docs is fully web based, it requires no software to be installed other than a web browser. This is great and easy to deploy and update for Google, you don't have to worry about being a version behind either. This is also probably the application's greatest weakness as well which I will get to later.

Because of the web based nature of the application is makes it very easy for Google to add a Dynamic Templates feature. Which they did! The templates that you would have in Microsoft word require you to click on a link, go online, download a template and use it. With Google docs the templates feature is 100% web based, so you can simply search and pick a template you want. There is no seperate interface or downloading that needs to happen, it just works.

Going with our chain of web based pros, as you can guess it is very easy to save a Google doc as a webpage. This is because all of the editing you are doing is actually just generating HTML and CSS code behind the scene. So you just save it to a file, no modifications are needed to make it look as you wrote it.

Once again, I find another pro to the apps that is no doubt due to the web itself. This is the sharing feature, simple and effective if everyone works in Google docs. All you do is essentially send someone an email link to the document in question and they can edit it (if you allow), view it, etc. This does break down if someone on the other hand does not want to use Google docs, which I will get to later. If someone wants a word or open office file, things break down here. Along side with this sharing feature is the revisions management. Which is surprisingly good, it lets you see the changes from earlier revisions, highlights them and allows you to revert to that previous version. New versions are made with autosaves and with manual saves as well.

Finally the last positive thing I can say about the Google docs app is the forms feature. This is extremely simple and effective. Not only does it have a good front end for building a form, but since it is web based sharing it is simple, and retrieving information from it is easy. All the submissions are saved and can be downloaded and viewed as a spreadsheet. If anything out of the entire suite this is something I would definately use.

Now for all the reasons why I am NOT going to use Google docs, the negatives.

The Cons:

Like I said above, the power of Google docs comes from it's whole web based nature, and it's also it's greatest weakness. Several of these issues can be overcome with some creative programing, but Google's staff should have already taken care of these.

The biggest issue for me was there is no page edit view for the word processor. Yes you can change it to page view, but that only shows you the width of the page, not the length. What I mean is that you simply keep typing, and typing and the document just gets longer. You have no idea where your natural flowing page breaks are, and find yourself having to go to print preview to see if something you are writting is being pushed to the next page or not. I use this to know if I have to manually add a page break, add a sentence or two, or if something needs to generally be re-arranged to be together on the same page.

Using the interface you are unable to add a different header and footer for each page. Instead the accepted solution seems to be to edit the HTML code of the document and add them in manually. This is unacceptible, and is so commonly used by people I just don't see how this functionality does'nt exist. Lets say you want to have a cover page for a document. You don't want a header or footer on it, let alone getting into more complex things where a footer needs to be on every other page, etc.

Going along with the header and footer issue is the complete lack of page count features. Again, this is possible only through changing the HTML code of the document. However the interface provides no way to add a page count, or what page you are on. This is another prime example of a simple, and very common feature that every serious word processor has. Extending this issue further there just simply are no dynamic fields in the word processor, such as document name, author, etc. All very commonly used.

As I mentioned above, the sharing feature works great, but lets say you work for a company that blocks Google doc's website. Let's say you have to send someone an actual word, open office, or PDF document. This can be for any reason, it could be that you just want to have a backup copy on your computer. Google docs breaks down badly here. I have used many import and export features in the past in many applications. Most of which work fine, and try to make the file as compatible as possible. Google docs on the other hand just seems to want to dump the information and go about it's merry way. Exporting to word or open office formats the headers and footers are just text and pictures inline with the rest of the content, and not the real deal. Table of contents sections are just bulleted text. Formating is similair at best, and unwanted or extra characters show up consistently. PDF export seems to be the best developed, however I have seen indent issues with it as well.

The issues with exporting and importing files cripples the sharing feature if someone does'nt want to use Google docs, and is useless if you want to make backup copies on your computer. Why bother trying to bring in a file edited by another program if those formating changes won't work. Even worse try getting someone to deal with a file that is not formated how you were viewing it.

Very surprisingly I found that the table formating features in the word processor were extremely limited. Sure you can add rows and columns easily, and setting widths works great. But when you get down to having to set borders on your table rows and columns, you just don't have much control. The borders and outlines apply for the entire table, and not per row, column, or cell. You may want thicker or thinner lines, maybe dotted lines, or something different to deperate headers, data, and summary information in a table. This is more of a HTML limitation I suspect due to how border formating actually works in HTML tables, but still there should be some features for it.

Not surprisingly I found there was no extra font support. Again, this is a web limitation, however one that can be worked around. Lets say you have a Gothic, or old english font you like and use on your company letter head, headers, etc. You can't use it with Google docs, because you can only pick from the list of fonts they have. These fonts are generally available on all computers and operating systems. This is why you don't see much variation in fonts on the web. However this could easily be fixed by allowing you to upload your own fonts. This way when someone else goes to look at your document, they would get a message saying "This document uses special fonts, do you want to download them?". It's not rocket science, it's simple. A disclaimer forcing you to agree to some terms before you upload the font would take care of the legal issue of using the fonts.

I have only used this feature myself a few times over the 15+ years I've been using computers, but there is no built in watermark feature in the user interface. Yes you could go through and change the CSS and html code, but that is my point about all these negatives. While most of them can be fixed by changing the CSS and HTML, you should'nt have to! If I want to add a draft watermark, or a company logo or seal in the background of all my documents, it should only take me a minute or two at the most and a couple of clicks.

I decided to try and edit a couple of files on my Palm Pre, but found I was unable to. I could view them, but not edit them. The viewing of the documents did appear to be a bit different than expected as well. Things just looked a bit different, not just because it was a small screen, but indenting seemed to be a bit more in some areas and less in others. So I can't say much here, other than I did expect to be able to add text to an existing document on a newer mobile device like the Pre.

I surprisingly found the spreadsheet and presentation apps very similair to their common desktop equivilants. However I immediately noticed one feature, that completely baffles me why it's not there. No print preview in either the spreadsheet or presentation apps. I can understand the presentation app somewhat, but the spreadsheet app?! Spreadsheets I use print preview in the MOST to make sure all my data is showing on one page and how I need it. The only preview you get is the generated PDF document that you need to open before you actually print it. This is very labour intense, just to make small adjustments.

Another strike to the spreadsheet application is adding additional columns and rows. This is a minor complaint, but for some reason Google felt like it needed to limit you to how many you can add at one time. For example you can only add 500 more rows at a time, if you want more you have to go through the dialog again and again. With columns you can only add one at a time, if you want more you have to select several rows and hit the add feature. Even then you still are limited to adding only how many you had selected. To make this matter worse, the spreadsheet app slows down signigicantly more (in firefox 3) when you add a few hundred additional rows. All spreadsheet applications I have seen on the desktop start with 60,000+ rows and well over 26 columns wide. It just seems like Google has a performance issue here and that's why they are limiting it to hide it.

Finally I come across an issue with the presentation application as I cannot find any way to add sound or music to a presentation. Yes, I know that it generally is not acceptible to add sound or music to a professional presentation. However sound effects can draw attention to key points if used correctly during a long presentation to keep focus. Plus don't forget about all those power point presentations people send you with music and sounds for an "In memory of..." or "Those wacky ducks!" type presentation. Even more, sound should be added for presenations intended to be viewed just by the end user. Speaking of which that reminds me, you can't set timings per slide either.

End Result

Honestly the way the whole suit acts and behaves, it just feels like a small company wrote it. Seriously, with all much resources as Google has, and all the hype this series of apps gets, I expect Microsoft Office in my browser. However I am let down with a complete lack of basic features. Now keep in mind, I was simply trying to do common tasks that I myself do, or have done in with Microsoft Office in the past, even with Open Office. I even tried a few things that I know my customers actually use and do themselves that I don't. This is why you see more focus on the word processor than the spreadsheet or presentation apps in this review, I just don't use those kinds of apps much.

Simply put the editor reminds me of free open source WYSIWIG editors, the only one that "WOW'd" me was the spreadsheet editor in that it calculated on the fly. However thinking back on it now, it's most likely just a series of smaller editors that have absolute positioning, and javascript to update them. Nothing special at all, nothing that any small group of developers could make themselves, and probably do a better job.

Would I use Google docs? NO, I definately would not. Not just because many basic things I use very often are not there, but because Google accepts no responsibility for the data out there, and offers no way for you to recover lost files. Imagine if your Google docs account gets hacked, and someone deletes all your files. Google has no responsibility to get those back for you. They most likely do have backups, but they are not liable to get them back for you. Continuing with the hacker issue, imagine your account being compromised and someone logging into it occasionally to download your files, or read them at their leisure. Standard word, powerpoint, or excel documents don't have this issue as someone would have to install something on your desktop, or break into your office.

If anything I would use it to publish to a blog, or maybe as an online notepad (I would'nt because I can't update it from my phone). However I don't have a use for it otherwise. What would make me use it would be correcting all the negatives I mentioned above, and making the software installable onto your own server. That way I know where my documents are, I can restore them from my backup, and I know that the security of the application data is in my hands. This is very similair to what I said about Google Wave, and I say it again here, not everyone is going to use one application and if Google does'nt provide more cross connectivity between legacy and new they will go no where with these applications.

Final Rating: 4 out of 10


Last Updated: 09/14/2009 03:26 AM

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Google Docs Review Spreadsheet Word Processor

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