The most unique aspect of online software such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets is that it lets you grab and edit files from any computer with Internet access, then invite anyone to make edits or view a document. You can even save your work as a public RSS feed. Luckily, Google has made it harder to accidentally publicize your work than Writely did. Microsoft has still not found a no-brainer way to let regular Office consumers share their text and spreadsheets with other people via the Web.
However, Google doesn't yet offer a comprehensive productivity suite among its many online services. There's no PowerPoint-like app, for instance, unlike the more full-featured Zoho suite. And while you can manage text files and spreadsheets within Google Docs & Spreadsheets' unified interface, other aspects of the service are unevenly integrated. For instance, Spreadsheets lets you chat live with collaborators on your file, which we used to double-check specific formulas; but Google Docs does not. The two tools also display document revisions in different ways.
The new Presentations is a decent, attempt at a barebones rival to Microsoft PowerPoint. There aren't any animations or transitions available, but that's likely to change as the beta service evolves. Its most useful attribute so far may be the ability to share presentations on the fly with other people, which Zoho and ThinkFree also enable.
We've encountered some odd behavior over nearly a year of beta testing. For example, when we selected text in Google Docs & Spreadsheets and pressed Ctrl+I to italicize it, the toolbar's italics symbol detected the command, but the text didn't change. Still, other keyboard shortcuts worked, such as Ctrl+C to copy. And when we saved and closed a document, the browser window closed and didn't take us back to the list of files. Several times within Internet Explorer, we couldn't get a file to open when clicking on its link from the sign-in page.
Service and support is very good for this Web-based service, though not superb. Google provides a quick tour, a searchable online knowledge base, and user-guided forums for Google Docs & Spreadsheets. You can report beta bugs, but there's no e-mail support to help you with unusual questions.
We expect that Google will gradually add layers of new features to Google Docs & Spreadsheets beta, eventually integrating with Gmail and Google Calendar, and more. Mobile workers and students who are always online might not require more than what Google Docs & Spreadsheets offers for free. But if you ever lack Internet access, there's no desktop version of Google's online services, unlike the rival ThinkFree. For now, Google's office apps make a great traveling companion to desktop productivity software. And despite the beta imperfections, the user experience is more seamless than it has been with Zoho or ThinkFree Online. We'll continue to track updates to Google Docs as they come up.