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Out of Office with Google Docs: New breed online office applications, a viable alternative to Microsoft Word?

written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 12/31/2008

Google Docs is a word processing application for the Web, and while it still has some bugs it could change word processing forever. So lets take a look at this new wave of online application service and see if we really have found an alternative to the market leading MS Office suite.

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    The Interface

    Hosting a word processor online presents many challenges. It's not always clear where some functions are located. For instance, to open a new document, you must first click on the “Done” or “Cancel” buttons on the right-hand corner of the screen. For most desktop word processing software, this would be part of the File menu.

    Most of the interface menu choices have been paired down from the overwhelming number of choices of a typical desktop word processor, like Word. Instead, there is a row of common choices, such as save, print, spell check, cut, bold, paragraph formatting, and list numbering. There are two rows of text menus with drop-down selection, such as the file menu or font menu.

    Speaking of fonts, there are a very limited number of system fonts installed, including Georgia, Verdana, and Comic Sans. This offers enough choices for most document writing tasks. Anyone wanting to do serious desktop publishing should buy desktop publishing software, rather than relying on a word processor.

    Collaborate

    Collaboration is one of the big strengths of putting a document on the Read/Write Web. You can add or remove collaborators using the Collaborate tab on the top of the screen, which allows others to access and edit the same document at the same time. The bottom of the screen notifies you when someone else is also editing a document. Collaborators can also insert comments, rather than editing the actual document.

    If two people happen to be editing the same word document at the same time, one person will receive a message that their changes did not get saved, because someone else was editing the document.

    Import and Export

    You can upload Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, Rich Text, HTML, and plain text files.  That means you can't use Docs & Spreadsheets to upload your novel, but you could upload your average term paper. You can export files in the same formats and as a PDF.

    Exporting PDFs is very useful, since not all word processing programs export to that format automatically. I did experience the occasional error when trying to import a Word document.

    Publish

    You can “publish” documents by giving public read-only access. You can also give private view-only access to a few people, but that option is in the Collaborate tab, which is a bit confusing. Published documents can also be "unpublished," if you decide they're not quite ready for viewing. You can also create an RSS feed to track changes, although this option may give people access to the names of documents that are not published.

    Blog

    You can take a document and publish it directly to Blogger or another blog. If you are using a hosted blog service, it may take a bit of tweaking to get the correct code. I was able to post to Blogger without any issues.

    Publishing to blogs directly from the word processor has the potential to be huge. Most blogging programs, including Blogger, tend to have less sophisticated word processing tools and smaller windows. It would also be handy to be able to post to multiple blogs, but you have to change your settings manually at this point.

    Saving and Revisions

    Google continually saves your document as you type. This means that you don't lose a considerable amount of data if your computer loses power or your browser crashes, but occasionally, you may find a mistake that you can't undo. However, you can find earlier versions of your document by visiting the Revisions history.

    Sorting Documents

    You can sort and organise documents by tagging them with keywords or flagging them with a star. Documents can be sorted by the date of last modification, document title, or document owner. You can also search within your documents to find a keyword phrase.

    Overall

    Google Docs has a good selection of standard word processing features. It covers the essentials for most writing purposes, especially writing challenges for students who may need to use lab computers, or writers who want to collaborate on a document without emailing it back and forth. However, it still lacks features found in desktop word processing applications, such as grammar checking, templates, and the ability to handle larger documents. It is also often slow and sometimes unresponsive. That said, with the world going mobile and almost exclusively online even with those limitations, it's still a great tool with much potential. And you certainly can't beat the price.

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    Images

    LogoGoogle DocsInterface