More Thoughts on Google Docs

Back in March, I mentioned my plan to write my independent study in Google Docs instead of going the usual route and using Microsoft Word. Now that I’m officially done with that project, I thought I’d give you a postmortem of how things went.

Thinking back, Google Docs (at least the word processor component of it) easily handled about 90% of the things I threw at it. Being an online app makes for a couple of killer features:

  1. Really Good Collaboration Tools: Google makes it easy to share your documents with others and to invite them collaborate with you. A little indicator at the bottom of the screen lets you know if someone else is editing the document at the same time as you, and an audit trail lets you know who made every addition and change. I know Microsoft has a few technologies to do something similar with Word, but it’s pretty complex and out of reach for individuals and small businesses.
  2. Version Control and Off Site Backup: Google Docs logs all changes as document revisions, and gives you an easy interface to compare them. This is also handy for seeing how others have changed the document. And because Google Docs is web-based and hosted from Google’s data centers, each save and auto-save is automatically stored remotely. You can make local back-ups too, if it makes you feel more comfortable. In any case, it means the end of the nightmare of losing your big project due to some random computer problem.

Google’s recent redesign of the document organizer is great too — it’s now a lot easier to keep track of everything with tagging and search.

There’s plenty of room for improvement though, and here are some features that would really make this web app powerful.

  1. More Control Over Styles: Since your docs are basically just HTML documents, it’d be awesome if you could define CSS stylesheets to have complete control over how things looked.
  2. True Offline Access: Sure, right now you can export your documents to a number of formats and then bring changes back in, but that’s pretty lame. The Google Gears Firefox extension currently in beta should solve this problem, but Google hasn’t mentioned when Docs will support the technology. I suspect it won’t be long, but the sooner, the better.
  3. Create an Editor Role: If you want to invite someone to collaborate on a doc with you right now, you can choose from two access options — viewer (read-only) or collaborator (full-control). It’d be great if there was something in between that would allow comments to be added but would prevent edits to the actual document text. I imagine this would be especially useful for teachers and professors.
  4. Better Control Over Formatting and Printing: I’ve found that if you want to print a document from Google Docs and actually have some control over its layout and formatting, you’re almost forced to drop back to Word or another desktop word processor. I’m guessing this is a difficult problem to solve since Docs is JavaScript based, but maybe there’s a way to use Adobe’s Flash tools to create a better experience here.
  5. Add Support for Footnotes and References: This is another one that would make this app a lot more useful for education. Right now, managing references is completely manual, which is really a shame. It’d be great to have a built-in tool to automate the process, or at least make it a little easier.
  6. Transport Layer Security (SSL): I didn’t realize until I just tried it, but it looks like Google Docs does support secure document editing with SSL (HTTPS). This isn’t the default though — I had to manually change the URL to to get this ability. Secure should be the default, as it gives people warm fuzzies and takes away a reason for them not to try it.
  7. Tighter Integration with Spreadsheets: In MS Office, it’s trivial to take a graph you’ve made in Excel and embed it into a Word document so that it always represents the latest data in the spreadsheet. In Google Docs, there’s currently not a good way of doing this. Inserting a GIF representation of the graph just isn’t the same.

So, there you go. There’s lots to like in Google Docs, and it’ll do most of what you’re looking for in a word processor. I was a little disappointed that I had to fall-back to MS Word for my project though, and hope some of the ideas I listed above will make their way into a release soon.

One reply on “More Thoughts on Google Docs”

There’s no reason not to have effective, well designed web-based Office software. Muchos kudos to Google for that, though I would agree that 2, 3, & 7 are a necessity in order to have a viable option to have a nay parade for Microsoft. Oh wait there’s also Open Office…blah.

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