Google Docs - Clouding with style


Updated: August 16, 2010

Some time ago we talked about Zoho, a Web-based office suite. Zoho provides the home and business users with a wide range of office and productivity applications, including word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, project management, database, and other tools. Most of the services are free, but some features are limited and require a fee to be unlocked. And, as always, there's the matter of privacy and trust in storing your personal data in the cloud. All in all, I was quite pleased with Zoho Office Suite, from the purely functional perspective. Not my cup of tea, but it could definitely be your mug of beer.

Today, I would like to present Google Docs, a similar solution created in Google forges, albeit with a few distinct differences.

Teaser

In this article, I'll show you around and introduce Google Docs, including the various offered applications and notable features.I will also address the always-present question of privacy and trust, one more time. Lastly, I'll compare the Google product to Zoho and see which one makes more sense for a typical desktop user.

Please follow me for a tour.

Google Docs

Short introduction

Google was among the first companies to spot and realize the enormous potential in Web-based services. The long-term plan started with a mail client and then branched into other venues of desktop/office productivity, completing a whole circle with a browser operating system called Google Chrome OS. The focus is slowly moving away from desktop-specific into cloud-agnostic, where you use offsite resources for number crunching and your own machine merely as a viewing portal that lets you play with your data, stored hundred or thousands of kilometers away.

Google Docs is a realization of this far-reaching vision, in between the classic browser and the operating system. It is a complete and free product that offers people with Internet connectivity with a simple, efficient office solution.

Google Docs can be called yet another office suite floating in the cloud out there, but it is more than that. Like all Google products, it integrates seamlessly into the service backbone.

Last but not the least, as an online Web service, Google Docs is available in any normal, decent browser on any operating system. In the Zoho review, I showcased using openSUSE and Ubuntu. I will demonstrate Google Docs using Windows 7 and Ubuntu.

Using Google Docs

If you have a Google account, you're all set. The single Google account provides you with a complete access to various products, including mail, calendar, reader, Docs, or even Youtube. The only thing you need to do is choose Documents in the top menu.

Once you start the Docs, you'll have a Getting started help items pop up, explaining the basic interface and common functions. This is a very nice feature, since it allows completely clueless users a very quick immersion into productivity.

Intro

Clicking on Create new, you begin working with the Google Docs. The available formats include word processing, presentation, spreadsheet, form, and drawing, more in line with a classic desktop suite. In this regard, Zoho offers more tools in its Switch to menu. However, Google offers calendar, mail and chat as separate applications, so one-on-one comparison may not strictly reflect the actual capabilities and advantages of either one.

New

Working with Google Docs

The interface is very simple yet powerful. You can do pretty much anything you would normally expect from an office suite. The most common, most often used features are shown in a toolbar, including Styles. A variety of additional functions are available in the File menu.

Images

For instance, you can insert images, drawings or LaTeX equations into your documents.

Options 1

Options 2

Google Docs does not mimic the classic desktop office suites and uses its own arrangement of menu items. Personally, I find the simplified interface much more to my liking. While you retain the power, finding the right tools and option is easier and you're spared the enormous clutter that most programs normally hide in their menus.

This is especially helpful for less knowledgeable users, allowing them to focus on productivity rather than waste hours helplessly wandering through the myriad functions.

Export options

Google Docs lets you save your work in numerous formats, including HTML, OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, latest Office Open XML included, PDF, RTF, and plain text. The variety lets you use and share your work with confidence with people using this or that system and program, without worrying about tiny details.

Yet another important aspect is the revision history, which lets you go through autosaved versions of your work. This is very, very handy.

Download

Other products

I've shown the word processor utility; now, let's take a look at the other available apps. For instance, the presentation software is another useful tool, with a very simple, practical and intuitive interface that surpasses the classic office programs. Most important functions are exposed, helping reduce tension and increase productivity. But you also have additional features, including embedded audio and video, effects, speaker notes, and more.

P.S. For those wondering, Here I Go Again is a song by Whitesnake, a legendary 80s rock band, and that image in my slideshow is from the clip. Style and beauty merged.

Presentation

Here's the Drawing app:

Drawing

Translations

Another useful feature is the document translation, available in numerous languages of the world. While I can't vouch for the fidelity of translation, the availability of the tool makes Google Docs an international player. This could be very helpful for diverse global teams, who need to share information in different languages.

Translate

Collections

Whenever you're done working, you can go through your collection of documents. These could be document owned by you or merely opened by you, shared files, files tagged and starred, or more. The search function is flat, making it easier to go through very large collections, especially if you work with documents written by others.

Collection

Other stuff

Comparison to Zoho

I have noted a number of major differences throughout the document, but let's recap some of them. Google Docs offers inline help and has a simpler, more streamlined, more intuitive interface. Furthermore, Google Docs are complete free, the only limitation being a fairly large number of documents and rather big file sizes, which are well above the typical figures for an average desktop user.

Google Docs seems more oriented toward the 95% average users, while Zoho aims for a more professional crowd, although the two cater well to both. In daily usage, Google Docs has an advantage, with much more robust and powerful backbone of support applications, which is not surprising, considering the sheer power of the search giant.

Moreover, you have a complete office suite available, with Google mail and calendar replacing the traditional mail client and Google Docs playing the part of the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software.

Again, the focus is on simplicity, both visual and functional. Google Docs is not rocket science, nor does it aim to be. The software look and feel cozy and friendly and this is a key feature. Sometimes, less is more.

Other platforms & browser

May be slightly unnecessary, but one or two screenshots of Google docs open in alternative browsers and operating systems. For example, shown in Google Chrome browser twice, once running in Jaunty with classic interface and once running in Karmic, with the GTK theme used.

Another 1

Another 2

Privacy issues

To wrap the review, I must emphasize the importance of privacy and trust. I do not believe in evil corporations just waiting to suck your blood and turn it into electricity, but you might have qualms about storing your data offsite, on third-party servers far away from your home. And indeed you should. This is a very important thing to take into consideration.

As I've stated in Zoho review, I believe in a more classic, desktop oriented mode of work. However, I do see great merits in using a solution like Google Docs. It's free, secure and simple and runs well no matter what platform and browser you choose. You also gain flexibility and portability. You let go off compatibility and file format issues that normally arise when working with office documents of this and that sort. You're free to focus on your work, using a very simple and friendly interface.

Well, that's it. I've played the Devil's Advocate part. It's up to you to make the right choice. I cannot make it for you. I can merely show you the technology wonders and let you decide.

Conclusion

Google Docs is very decent alternative to desktop office programs. In fact, it is not so much as an alternative, more of a complementary product that works well with your desktop applications.

Google Docs is an attractive solution because it's utterly simple yet powerful, streamlined and intuitive, featuring probably the best interface I've seen in an office-like application. Furthermore, you have flexibility and mobility. A click away, you have the range of other Google products waiting for you, including mail and calendar, integrated perfectly with Google Docs. On top of that, you get it all for free.

The other side of the coin is privacy. If you trust Google, then you have a powerful set of tools at your disposal. Whether you're a salesman or a traveler, an international man of mystery, someone running a weak netbook, or a user sharing information globally with peoples from different countries and cultures, Google Docs helps bridge the gaps more easily, with style and simplicity as its key drivers.

That would be all for today.

Cheers.

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