How Google Docs won me over

Google Docs liberated my data from a laptop with a seized-up cooling fan, but I was hardly an ardent fan. One new feature fuels my optimism.

Android phones, iPhones, and iPads now can be used to edit Google Docs word processing documents.
Android phones, iPhones, and iPads now can be used to edit Google Docs word processing documents. Google

With a single new feature added to its online word processor yesterday, Google has diminished many concerns I had about taking the cloud-computing plunge a few months ago.

That feature, autocorrect in Google Docs, fixes common typos such as converting "teh" into "the." In and of itself, it's not a game-changer.

But it carried outsized importance for me because it was one of the things I missed most about Microsoft Word and because it gives me faith that Google Docs is headed in the right direction.

As if to validate my new optimism, Google today announced an improvement that's much larger than a single feature: the ability to edit Google Docs from Android phones, iPhones, and iPads. Google Spreadsheets already were editable with some mobile phone browsers.

Google Docs, which has grown considerably since Google's 2006 acquisition of Writely, consists mainly of word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation modules that compete with Microsoft Office's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. It's become a standard-bearer for the Web applications movement and, with Google selling it in premium form along with Gmail for $50 per user per year in the form of Google Apps, Google's next billion-dollar revenue stream after advertising.

Google has said Google Docs will compete not by matching every Microsoft Office feature but by emphasizing common abilities needed by everyone and by making collaboration a centerpiece rather than an afterthought. That message stuck in my craw, I confess. Although I agree it's transformative to have several people editing the same document at the same time, I think you also need a lot of more features to be truly compelling for more than very lightweight use.

Thus my delight with autocorrect. It signifies that Google realizes it needs better features and is working to make them happen. Much of this is possible from the rebuilt Google Docs foundation that emerged in April. Last year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told me Google Apps customers sign up for Gmail and Google Calendar , but with improvements, maybe they'll start using Docs in earnest, too.

So here's my assessment of Google Docs from having lived in it for months. My needs may not be yours--I've hardly used Presentations, for example, and I deal much more with raw text than with fancy formatting, revision-tracking, fonts, and printing--so don't assume everything here applies universally.

Why switch?
I use three computers and a mobile phone for work, and Google Docs spans all of them. That's the reason I fully embraced it starting in March, but it's not why I got started.

Before I switched, I'd been dabbling with Google Docs to see what it could offer. I liked the colorful, clean spreadsheet graphs better than what came out of Excel. In a few cases where I needed to take some notes I needed at home while I was at work, I'd use a Google Docs document instead of my previous approach, e-mailing them to myself.

Autocorrect, accessible through Preferences in Google Docs' tools menu, lets you fix common typos.
Autocorrect, accessible through Preferences in Google Docs' tools menu, lets you fix common typos and expand abbreviations into long phrases that are cumbersome to type. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

I was glad I got started, because in March, when I happened to be far away from any company IT help, my work computer, a Windows XP machine, croaked. A busted fan bearing meant it wouldn't even switch on. My data was safe but inaccessible, but more to the point, I had stories to write.

I had two other machines on hand: a MacBook Pro and Windows 7 laptop. I wasn't sure what my computing future held and was reluctant to commit to a long-term relationship with another hard drive. Google Docs was an easy option to try for a few days while I got things sorted, and it would be easy to export a few files back to my machine after I got things sorted out, I reasoned.

It stuck. I rapidly came to appreciate the ability to hop from one machine to another. At one point, waiting in a queue in a post office, I was able to retrieve address information I'd stored in a document using my phone, too.

Although there are legitimate concerns about the security and reliability of Google's infrastructure, they must be assessed not just in absolute terms but also in relation to the alternative. That one fan bearing showed one pretty glaring weakness.

The good
So what do I like about Google Docs besides cutting the dependence on a single machine?

The reliability, as I mentioned, is one asset. During the transition to the new foundation, I had recurring warnings that I had to reload my documents, but they faded as Google patched it up. Now I find it consistently available. I also appreciate that my data is backed up on Google's servers, which if not infallible are at least engineered to surmount hardware failures as a routine rather than exceptional problem.

Something else that took some getting used to but that I prefer now is real autosave. Every few seconds after I stop typing, the document is automatically saved, with no weird corrupted versions resurrected after a crash.

I don't share the bulk of my documents, but there have been occasions when I jointly wrote a piece with another reporter when it's been useful. My wife and I both wrote our holiday letter at the same time using one document but different computers.

For organizing my files, I vastly prefer Google's idea of labels to the traditional folder hierarchy. If I take notes on a story that involves Google, Apple, Web browsers, and Adobe Systems, I'd have to decide where to file it back in the old days. Now I just mark the story with each of those labels so it's available when I view any of those subsets of my files.

The Google Docs file list page is a useful portal to my data. The most recently changed document is at the top, which often helps me resume work where I left off earlier. The ability to hide documents I'm done with resembles Gmail's useful archive. I occasionally add a star to important documents, but usually the time-based organization produces a page that naturally resembles my to-do list without having to do much more.

And did I mention that I like autocorrect? It's not just useful for fixing common typos. The reason I swear by it is to automate unpleasant or tedious typing chores. If you must write cumbersome phrases like "Massachusetts Institute of Technology" often, you can set Google Docs to type it for you when you type something shorter. I use it to replace the HTML coding, and it was one of the single biggest things I missed about Microsoft Word. Bear in mind, though, that if you add an autocorrect entry in one document, it won't be available in others--or in other instances of that document in separate browser tabs--until you reload those documents.

The bad
Google Docs needs a lot of improvements, though.

My biggest complaint, far and away, is the activation energy needed to get rolling with a new document. Clicking a menu item and waiting for the new tab to load is just so much slower than hitting Ctrl-N in Word. When it's crunch time and I need to start taking notes immediately, it's just too much fussing. Google knows darned well the benefits of alacrity, as shown by its obsession on search speed, but I feel with Gmail's current laggardliness and Google Docs' pokey point-and-click hurdles, Web apps have a lot of catching up to do.

Spellcheck has problems. I should be grateful that a JavaScript-based program running in a browser can even do this at all, but instead I focus on annoying omissions: I most definitely did not misspell "hadn't," "didn't," or "wasn't." Maybe there's a way to crowdsource the addition of new terms to the spell-checking dictionary or at least try to spotlight candidates for inclusion based on how often they appear on the Web overall.

I crave these features from Word: split screen, the "go back" command, and text highlighting with a fast keyboard shortcut.

Other weaknesses: Google Docs' search and replace falls short, for example because I can't search for or replace characters like a carriage return. The pop-up information about hyperlinks gets in the way of text I'm trying to edit. And I find it starts to crawl with big documents with several thousand words.

And Google Docs' "clear formatting" command seems awfully timid about actually clearing away formatting--line spacing and indents, for example. On a related note, I want to be able to paste unformatted text. For now, when I'm using Chrome, I use Ctrl-Shift-V on Windows and Command-Shift-Option-V on Mac OS X to paste without formatting.

Labels are useful, but awkward. Right now I drag documents to the labels in the documents view--a process that's rather laggy, by the way--but I wish there were an ability to add labels directly from the document itself. As it is, I create the document, save it with a title, go back to the documents list and reload it, then apply the labels.

Speaking of the documents list, as long as Google is pilfering code from the Gmail team, why not let me select, star, label, and archive items with keyboard shortcuts?

Network reliance
There was a day when Google was working on offline access to Google Docs and Gmail. With the demise of its Gears project and the as-yet unfinished replacement work with Web standards, though, the idea is on ice for now. Google says most people didn't use it anyway, which is a fair point, but I found it pretty clunky, and I suspect the people who do a lot of work offline weren't touching Google Docs with a ten-foot pole anyway.

But offline work is important for me. There are so many times when I lack a network, even in my glamourous high-tech first-world existence, this omission is really glaring. Here are some I've experienced personally in the last few months: on the train, on the plane, in the car, on vacation, dealing with collapsing conference Wi-Fi or flailing ISPs, reckoning with data-transfer limits on a mobile network using a tethered mobile phone.

So when there's a risk of a dead network, I preemptively do my work either in Word or in Evernote, which has a convenient native application that synchronizes with the cloud-based system. I suspect such an app would be possible for Google Docs with Adobe Systems' AIR foundation, which has a built-in browser based on the same WebKit engine as Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, but perhaps Google doesn't want to taint the purity of its Web-app marketing message.

Another awkward marriage of native and cloud apps comes when it's time to search. Back when all my data lived on my computer, I could use a local search application to turn up all sorts of data. Google Docs, though, has one search interface, Gmail and Google Calendar add a couple more, and none of them search my thousands of archived documents, presentations, PDFs, or other files on my hard drive.

I expect some of the problems I have are on Google's to-do list. What I find encouraging is the faster pace of improvements since the new Google Docs foundation arrived. Who knows--perhaps someday there will be something more Googley built in--live translation of a document into another language, for example, or predictive text autocompletion using Google Scribe. But even today, on balance, Google Docs has won me over.

 

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