Google Docs: one-year review

About a year ago, my institution made the campus-wide transition to Google electronic mail. Concurrently, Google’s suite of office applications known as Google Docs also became available, as it comes essentially integrated with electronic mail. It includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, among other things. I started using the word processor and spreadsheet right away; in recent times I have experimented with the presentation software as well. A fundamental component thereof is the remote hard drive (Google Drive), which allows for permanent file storage.
So, what’s the verdict ? Is this thing any good ? Would I recommend its use ?

A walk in the cloud
It is difficult, in a way, to rate this suite of applications, because whether or not one is going to find it satisfactory, or even usable, depends on whether one is a fan of the overall concept of “cloud” computing championed by Google, which consists of working with files and applications that are not residing locally (i.e., in the hard drive of the computer on which one is working), but remotely. The requirement, of course, is that a high speed internet connection be available.
To anyone used to “traditional” computing, where one creates a document on one’s computer, using one’s favorite word processor or spreadsheet, works on the document on that one machine only, with little or no need to share the document with co-workers, Google Docs will bring absolutely nothing, other than maybe back memories of a distant past — almost three decades.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself in the same situation as me, working at many different places (home, school, on the road), on many different devices (home computer, office computer, laptop, tablet), and routinely needing to work collaboratively on a document with others (whose favorite office software is never the same as mine), then cloud computing is not so much the best as the only way to go.
Constantly having to move files around, transferring from one computer to another while trying to keep track of latest version [0], and, last but not least, running into compatibility issues each time I need to have someone else work on that same project (because they use their own favorite application on their own favorite operating system), is no longer a viable proposition for me.

Pros and Cons

Google Docs isn’t perfect by any means. It looks and feels very rough to use, it is incomplete, and almost amateurish in some respects. Not only is it a far cry from professional products such as Apple iWork or Microsoft Office, it is not even remotely on par with a free open source office suite like OpenOffice.
As I wrote above, in many respects it feels like being back to the eighties. Little or no formatting ability, little or no support for equations, few and primitive templates, a lot of rigidity about it all. Try inserting an equation into a document, save it and download it as a PDF file, and print it — on any printer you like. The sight of the faint, oversize equation printed in different characters from the text, looking like the celebrated image of police reconstruction of the license plate of a runaway car from a blurry picture using Maximum Entropy, will make you do a facepalm and/or abandon Google Docs right away. Bottom line: one should not think of getting the same functionality as with standalone, professional office suites. In fact, that is not why one should consider Google Docs.
Personally, after one year of regular use, I do not see myself going back to the applications that I had been using before (in my case, iWork). The fact that I can now open the document on which I am working wherever I am, on whichever device on which I happen to be working; that I know that it is the most current version; that I am able to receive feedback from collaborators in real time; that my collaborators can access that document with the same ease, and work on it using the same software, simply seals the deal for me.
I am willing to give Google enough time to take care of all the glitches, which, for the most part, are minor (at least for someone like me). However, anyone considering the use of this suite should be aware of some potentially significant limitations.
Here is my opinion on the various parts:

Spreadsheet. This is the best component in my opinion. Simple, no-nonsense, gets the job done. I personally think that this is what a spreadsheet should be like. It does not have many of the fancier features of Microsoft Excel or Numbers — the ones that no one needs.

Word Processor. Usable. Excellent for basic things like letters, or generic type documents, if no fancy formatting is required. I have also used it for my grant proposals, but I have to admit that the equation editor is disappointing and incredibly primitive. Writing an article for publication using this software is simply not possible at this time.

Presentation. Not usable. This is by far the most disappointing, which is a shame because it is also potentially the most useful. I for one would love to be able to access my presentations without having to carry with me a laptop, or even my iPad. In order to be able to do that, I would gladly put up with the limited customization, the ugly fonts, the absence of animations or fancy transitions — I don’t use, no, hate animations, and generally like my slides to look very sober. The major problem here is that your presentation will often not look the same on two different computers. The layout, fonts, pagination may and do change in unpredictable ways, when switching from one computer to another (as my student and I recently found out), and that makes it essentially unusable, as it defeats the purpose of a “portable” presentation.
So, for presentations I am still stuck with Keynote. Not too big a problem, since I take my iPad with me all the time anyway, but surely the part of Google Docs that require most urgent work.

Notes

[0] It is true that services such as Apple’s iCloud do offer a way out of this problem, it is only a partial solution, as files can only be shared among individuals having access to that service (to my knowledge anyway) and in any case edited only using the one particular application (for example, in the case of a spreadsheet, Numbers), which must be available to all contributors, in case of a collaborative project. With Google Docs the application is the same for everyone.

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11 Responses to “Google Docs: one-year review”

  1. Jim Says:

    Cloud applications are interesting but the problem for me is storing my data on corporate servers. Who is searching my documents and for what purpose? Building an internal cloud using your own devices is better in my opinion.

    Also, the new free software fork of openoffice is libreoffice: http://www.libreoffice.org

    • Massimo Says:

      Who is searching my documents and for what purpose?

      Not sure what you mean, only documents that you want to share with everyone are searchable, I think… of course you have to trust that Google will keep your private documents private… to be honest, total privacy has always seemed like a pipe dream to me. I don’t believe that this day and age anyone can keep anything private. I guess it is something with which I have learned to live.

  2. Cath Ennis (@enniscath) Says:

    I agree about the lack of “polish” – any time I’ve used Google Docs for a document that needs to look good, I’ve dropped the final version into Word (at work) or Pages (at home) for formatting.

    The collaborative aspect is great, though – I tried to implement it for grant application writing when multiple PIs are involved, but there was always someone who’d send me an edited Word file anyway. But collaborative spreadsheets are great for hockey pools :)

  3. transientreporter Says:

    …you find yourself … working at many different places… on many different devices… and routinely needing to work collaboratively on a document with others… then cloud computing is not so much the best as the only way to go….

    Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude……

    Dropbox.

    ‘Nuff said.

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