So Google has released its web-based spreadsheet and word-processing tools. To run these things, you simply need a recent version of a decent browser – and it’s cross platform too.
Before you get all hot and bothered and decide to drop Office XP from your desktop, I should point out that the two products are more Works-level than Office-level in terms of capabilities. If anything, that’s being overly generous – the word processor is better than WordPad, but not much. The spreadsheet is interesting, but extremely feature limited. No macros, no custom functions, basic formatting only. And watch it choke on any sort of decent-sized spreadsheet. Go for something with lots of data in and load it up. Then wait and wait for the Google processing engine to chew its way through the data and present the results through the browser. There’s no graphing either, and printing might seem a bit wonky.
But all these are irrelevant gripes. With Docs & Spreadsheets (docs.google.com), Google and its developers have brought web-based applications to life. Yes, you need broadband for the speed to be workable, but this isn’t a big issue today – even I can have ADSL Max and I live in the middle of nowhere.
That the programs aren’t spectacular son et lumière experiences doesn’t matter. Google has rightly laid claim to the basic functional tool marketplace and decided it’s going to take aim at anyone expecting a revenue stream from such apps. Of course, none of this is a surprise to the other players. Microsoft is moving Office as quickly as possible into the integrated front-end/back-end business space. No-one should be thinking of deploying Office 2007 without its new Office Servers. And paying good money for an upgrade to Office 2007 on a home or SoHo desktop is the very definition of a luxury purchase. I’ve no problem with that, but be sure you know what benefit you’ll accrue over and above your current Office 2000 or equivalent.
Google’s Docs & Spreadsheets does bring some interesting functionality to the table. As you’d expect, it handles all sensible file formats such as PDF, XLS, DOC and HTML. However, it allows multiple users to participate in one document – several can work on the same document or spreadsheet. And you can have users who are participatory viewers, watching the discussion – yes, there’s a chat window too.
Again, nothing new here – Office has supported multi-user capabilities for some time. The problem is that no-one ever spotted them – they were buried on p4 of the tickbox listing of marketing claims. But with the Google offering, it’s a big button at the top right, labelled Collaborate.
So who’ll use Docs & Spreadsheets? Well, anyone who’s a lightweight user of such tools – and that’s a substantial number of people. Remember the tales of how people use Excel for lists, because they can’t be bothered to do a simple database? There are enormous numbers of users who use Excel as a simple maths scratchpad – they’ve probably never spotted the multisheet tabs at the bottom, and they have no interest in advanced macros and custom functions. For these users, being able to access “their stuff” from any modern browser, on any PC, is going to be a boon. Drop into a web café. Use a laptop. Borrow a friend’s desktop. Don’t bother hauling that heavy laptop home to your parents. It’s the student’s dream. And a dream for schools too: no licensing cost; online document sharing; and the means by which a teacher can easily pre-cook work and distribute it to a class.