I spent part of today at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., talking to some of the folks behind Google Docs & Spreadsheets, part of Google's Web-based office suite. I asked the product experts I met for their favorite features that often don't get the limelight or that people simply don't know about. I picked five that I thought were worth sharing:
1. Live lookup via Google and Google Finance. This is only available for Spreadsheets, but it's one of the neater advanced tidbits that makes use of Internet connectivity. Using two special formulas, users can create cells that will update constantly with data or information gleaned from Web searches or Google's finance service. This works for things such as stock symbols, sports statistics, or any other piece of information you want to source and keep up to date automatically. Spreadsheets users can have up to 250 of these live-updating cells per spreadsheet. You can read more about this here and here.
2. Google search inside a spreadsheet. If you come across a word or phrase that's unfamiliar, or you want to find out more about it, you can search for it without leaving the page. Just highlight it, right click and choose "Search the Web." The results will open in a new browser window (Note: This doesn't work in Google Docs, just Spreadsheets.)
3. Color-coded live comments. Microsoft Word junkies are probably well in tune with the program's pop-up commenting system. Google's approach in Documents is similar, allowing users to annotate wherever they please, as well as color-code comments. If the author or another contributor finds a comment useful, they can add it into the document by right clicking on it and then choosing that option from the contextual menu. Collaborators can also change their comment coloring on the fly, or create their own custom coloring scheme to denote things such as priority.
4. Revisioning. Like an entry on Wikipedia, both Google Docs and Spreadsheets offer the option to keep track of changes that have been made over the course of a document's or spreadsheet's lifespan. You can jump back and forth between edits you or your collaborators have made on a drop-down timeline menu, or by clicking the "older" and "newer" buttons. The slightly more advanced version of this that's only available in Google Docs (not Spreadsheets) is the ability to look at two versions of the same document side by side. The application will highlight the differences, and each revision gets its own color code. In any case, if there's been a snag somewhere, or you find an addition you don't like, you can nix it on the spot.
5. There are many copies. And they have a plan. The first thought in most people's minds when they're working with online apps is, "Where is this file being stored, and what if something bad happens?" Any document or spreadsheet created on the service is constantly being backed up in several places at once. Google uses the same file system for all of their Web apps, called GFS (Google File System), that's been designed so even if the server in which your file is hosted bursts into flames, the system will automatically switch over to the backup copy. The team says if this were to happen, users wouldn't even notice. Don't try this with your computer at home--that is, unless it's not your fault.