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Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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Sunday
Nov122006

Google docs: almost there

I've been searching for the perfect solution for note-taking and document sharing for a long time. I want something that's easy to use, that I can get to from anywhere, and that I can share selectively with others. I've used everything from email editors to online blogs and offline blog editors, from wikis to discussion forums, from Lotus Notes to Groove, from Outlook to Notepad, and from OneNote to eRoom.

They've all had their flaws and it seems like I've switched to a new solution for nearly every project as a result. But Google docs comes the closest yet to delivering my perfect solution. Here are the key attributes that resonate with me as a user:
  • Simple WYSIWYG editor (think MS Word without the feature clutter)
  • Online editor runs in browser
  • Offline editing mode (via interchange with Word and email)
  • Selective sharing (via email address or general publishing)

Easy editing

The simple editor is a given with most of these tools, but not all. Many popular wikis and discussion boards require you to learn html-like syntax to make bulleted lists, add bolding or italics, and embed links, for example. Good editors like you see in Google docs provide a simple toolbar above the typing area, containing buttons for these sorts of formatting options. Anyone familiar with MS Word will find this interface paradigm familiar and at the same time will be relieved that only the basics are included. 95% of us never (or very reluctantly) use styles or zoom or special viewing modes or any of the other options that clutter up the editing interface. Google docs gives you the essentials without the clutter.

Browser access

It's important for me to have a full-featured online editing capability. First, I find it simpler and more elegant to be able edit and store the document in the same interface. eRoom, for instance, is most often used as a repository for Office documents like Word docs and spreadsheets. So to edit an existing document I must download a local copy, then save it, then upload it again. With Google docs (and as with Lotus Notes, online blog editors and wikis), you click on the document, edit in place in the browser, and click save when you're done. Simple. And the cutting-edge AJAX interface gives you WYSIWYG editing right in the browser. (eRoom does have online editing of some document types, but they are not as easy to use or elegant as those in Google docs.)

Second, I want to make sure I have edit access from anywhere. Not every machine I use has MS Office or other specialized client software on it for editing. The most common example for me is my Mac. I use a couple of different Windows machines regularly (my work laptop and my home PC), but I also use an iMac at home (because it's the easiest way to live the digital lifestyle) and I don't have Office installed there. Outlook has Webmail access, but its Mac support is poor and you can't share Outlook notes.

Offline access 

At the same time, I do need an offline editing mode for those times I am not connected to the net. For me this happens every day for about two hours while I'm on the train commuting to and from the office. This is prime productive time for me because it's a predictable period I can sit with my laptop and not be disturbed. I can't use a browser-based editor when unconnected, though, and many times I've wanted to edit something stored in eRoom but forgotten to download it before heading to the train.

Google docs partially solves this problem by allowing interchange with email and Word docs (Excel documents with Google spreadsheets). Essentially, Word or your email editor becomes your offline editor. This works well in that these are familiar WYSIWYG tools you already have on at least some of your machines. In practice it falls down in a few areas. First, formatting doesn't always survive conversion 100% intact. I tried uploading a Word doc and the formatting looked pretty good. I then downloaded it as a Word doc again and I noted some of the graphics I'd pasted into Word had been lost and some of the text had shifted around the page a bit.

Email integration is a slick idea, but is also not completely reliable at this point. Google gives you a unique email address for your docs account. When you send an email to that address, it arrives as a new Google doc. Google has deftly converted your favorite email editor (including those from rival Webmail providers, Yahoo and MSN) into interfaces for their solution. For users of offline ediors like me (I use MS Outlook), this means Google has an effective offline editor as well. There are teething pains, of course. For example, one email I sent with a large PowerPoint attachment failed to arrive and I never got an error message or any sort of feedback.

The one offline editing feature that's missing is the ability to browse and access your docs when not connected. In that sense, integration with offline email editors is only one way. You can send an email to Google docs, but you can't use your email editor to look for, access or edit an existing document. I could keep Word documents open all day long for updating and upload them when I am done, but in practice this is no better than eRoom (except, of course, that Google docs is free).

Selective sharing 

Wikis, blogs, and most other forms of Web publishing are designed to publish to the world. If you want to restrict access to your content, you sometimes have the option to set a password for the site, but this binary approach to sharing content (access to all or nothing) makes it impossible to share, say, photos with your family and your ideas for the great American novel only with yourself. Lotus Notes and eRoom have more selective security models, but they are difficult to administer, with default groups you set up, exception rules, etc. I've used online wiki provider EditMe for a while and they recently added more granular security, but there is definitely a learning curve.

Google makes this as simple as possible, by using email. Once you've created a document you want to share, you simply enter the email addresses of people you want to share it with and they receive a message with a link to the document. You specify whether they should have read-only access or editing rights as well. This works particularly well if you are a Gmail user, as Google docs is integrated with Gmail's address book, making entering of email addresses for sharing quick and painless.

How is this different than just composing your thoughts in your favorite email editor and sending them to that person directly? Google docs is closer in concept to a wiki or blog than email. It's for content you want ongoing access to and possibly ongoing editing of. Email, in contrast, is ephemeral. Most people delete email after they've read it. Even those (like me) who file almost everything seldom refer to it afterword (like me). For instance, I use my personal wiki to record and publish the minutes of my neighborhood association board meetings, to record business and product ideas, and to take notes for

User>Driven. I also use Apple iLife to publish family photos and home improvement blog entries.

 

Note-taking, Web 2.0-style

Most people use MS Office for permanent documents and attach them to emails when they want to share them. The idea behind Google docs is to have a permanent home online for your documents so you and whoever else you designate can always access the latest version. It also allows for real-time collaborative editing (though I've never seen this sort of feature used effectively).

Google docs get 3 1/2  out of my four key criteria right for a note-taking and sharing application. Co-opting Office and email programs as alternative editors is very clever and effective as far as it goes. To become this user's regular solution, though, it needs an offline editing solution that will never leave me without access to my documents.

Reader Comments (6)

What will be really interesting to see with this is how the acquisition of Jotspot plays into the Docs and Spreadsheet applications and vice versa. From interviews with Joe Kraus in several of the trade rags it seems clear that Google has big designs for using JotSpot Wiki with the myriad of applications around Google, but most of the column inches I read were mostly directed at the Docs apps.
November 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Coleman
Yes. there's a lot of speculation on this. Check out this post (http://www.zoliblog.com/blog/_archives/2006/10/31/2462946.html) for a glimpse into what the "wikirati" think Google should do with JotSpot.

Also this one (http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/10/jotspot_googles.html) on whether Google's competition is really wikipedia more than Yahoo or MSN.

This last one is suggesting that Google will gradually put the means of creation of Web content into the hands of the masses, in a truly longtail approach to the Web. Not just enabling people to find content on the internet, but actually to host the content within their network.
November 13, 2006 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy
Speculation on who the real users of Google Apps are and whether there is any real threat to Microsoft.

http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,2097559,00.asp?kc=EWWSUEMNL022807EOAD
March 17, 2007 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy
Hello! Is there a book on Google doc & spreadsheet? I would like learn how to use formula. I don't think I can learn how to use it through "help". Thank you! John
March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
Hello, this is Dan from Coventi.

I thought I'd chime in and let you know about Coventi Pages, a competing office 2.0 app with killer collaboration features.

Google Docs allows you to share your content, but we think sharing is not enough. For real collaboration, you need tools that allow you to discuss and revise content with precision.

In Coventi, creating a comment or suggested edit is as easy as highlighting text and writing a note in the margin. Anyone invited to the document can reply, and authors can see this discussion right in context while they're making edits.

We have a quick video demo at:
www.coventi.com/videos/IntroToPages.aspx

Accounts are free right now so it's a great time to give it a try.

Thanks,

Dan
March 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDan
Dan, your transparent attempt at promotion has worked. ;)

Quick inspection of Coventi appears to reveal a well-conceived collaborative document editor. It appears to function like google docs in that it has interchange with Word so you can do offline editing. And the commenting interface is nice, though BuzzWord's is slicker.

Buzzword also promises to eliminate the import/export issue by having a single editing and file storage paradigm that works offline and on, by leveraging Adobe Apollo. I think this will always be more usable and satisfying than your approach or the eRoom/Groove upload/download model.

Do you think comments are a sustainable advantage over Google docs? I'd expect them to add it in version 1.1.
April 1, 2007 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

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