NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, May 2007
Google Docs and Spreadsheets (Beta)
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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Most of us know Google as one of the premier search engines. Many of us know that Google also offers additional services such as its mapping and driving directions (maps.google.com), and its global imaging (earth.google.com). What many may not be aware of is that Google is now beginning to offer a suite of office products, including a fully featured word processor, and a spreadsheet that includes graphics. It was also recently announced that Google will soon be offering a presentation program to compete directly with Microsoft's very popular PowerPoint. It is obvious that Google is trying to compete with Microsoft by offering for free, office functions competitive with some of the components of Microsoft Office.

For the past six years I have typed this column using the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, but not tonight; tonight I am typing this on Google Docs (docs.google.com). One might ask, "Why Google Docs?" For one, unlike its Microsoft competitor, all of these services are free. Another feature is the automated ability so save the document online on a secured Google server which can be accessed by me or by approved collaborators from anywhere in the world with internet access. Third, the user can upload and open documents composed in Word, Open Office (http://www.openoffice.org), RTF (Rich Text Format), or plain text. Of course, documents can be created from scratch, as I am doing now. Google Docs offers "WYSIWYG" (What You See Is What You Get), meaning that the document will print as it appears on the screen. Documents created with Google Docs can be uploaded as web pages, or posted to blogs as desired. Documents can also be downloaded in a multitude of formats, including Word, Open Office, RTF, PDF, HTML, or ZIP formats; this means that these documents can then be opened on almost any other word processor or browser. Prior to saving or printing, or at any other time, an integral spell checker can be executed by clicking on the yellow "Check spelling" hyperlink. Upon implementing the spell checker, questioned words are highlighted in yellow (or any other selected color), and right clicking on the highlighted word will open a selection of correctly spelled words to select from, or words can be added to the dictionary.

One nice feature built into Google Docs is the "Revisions" tab on the toolbar. By clicking on "Revisions" the user can easily go back to any of many selected prior versions that had been created. By apparent default, Google Docs automatically saves a copy of the document every five minutes, and keeps multiple sequential backups. For those who have been known to want to go back to an earlier version of a document, or undo a catastrophic error (such as failing to save and properly backup documents), this feature can be a lifesaver.

While lacking some of the visual polish of the commercial word processors, Google Docs is quite full featured. Clicking on "File" offers the traditional commands common on competing products, plus a variety of additional useful commands. It is from this "File" menu that the user selects to securely save the document online at Google, or in any of the several supported formats. "Word Count", "Find and Replace", and "Document Settings" (default fonts and other settings) can be accessed and selected. In "Edit" mode, the mode where text is entered (that is the mode I am in as I type this) a toolbar appears which includes a comprehensive variety of useful icons which displays an informative label when the cursor is moved over them. A "Style" radio button on the toolbar allows the user to selectively choose desired paragraph styles, justification, and text formatting.

Clicking on the "Insert" tab opens another toolbar allowing for the easy inclusion of images, hyperlinks, comments, tables, bookmarks, a choice of separators, and special characters such as symbols or foreign alphabets.

The "Edit HTML" link adjacent to the tabs displays the typed content in HTML format including HTML commands such that anyone familiar with HTML coding can edit the appearance of the document when displayed on a web page. "Preview" displays the page as it would appear if printed or posted to a web page. "Print" and "Email" icon functions are obvious. The "Collaborate" tab gives the user the opportunity to specify who else can work on and edit the document, and "Publish" will assign the document a unique URL where others can access the document on the internet, or post the content to a blog.

Google Spreadsheet is a full featured spreadsheet, now complete with graphic capabilities. The spreadsheet can import and export data in a variety of popular formats, such as XLS (Excel), CSV, TXT, and ODS. Spreadsheets can also be exported in HTML format for posting to a website and viewable with any browser, or saved and printed in PDF format. Navigating around the Google Spreadsheet is very similar to most other spreadsheets, allowing the experienced spreadsheet user to use Google Spreadsheets without learning any new skills. Novice users can easily learn basic spreadsheet tasks by simply playing with Google Spreadsheet. Like any other spreadsheet product, the sheet and its output can be easily manipulated to appear as desired, and can then be published to the web as a web page, inserted into a blog, saved and downloaded in any of the available formats, or just saved to the Google secured server. One interesting feature allows live real-time chat with collaborators while multiple users work on the same document from distant locations, all the tasks being accomplished simultaneously over the internet.

I was pleasantly surprised by Google Docs and Spreadsheets (Beta). I found it to be intuitive and easy to use, while rich in features. It is a capable adjunct for anyone to use with his current word processor or spreadsheet, but powerful enough to be used instead of a commercial word processor or spreadsheet. Google Docs and Spreadsheets would be an especially useful product to anyone who does not have access to a full featured office product, or who does not want to invest the money in a commercial product. Since Google Docs and Spreadsheets can read and write Microsoft and other formats, it may be useful for students to use for homework and other tasks. Docs and Spreadsheets would also be useful for home users or organizational employees. This web based software may also be useful as an external backup solution, since it supports other popular formats, and can allow for the easy transport and conversion of documents and spreadsheets, as well as the secure storage of files.

For the price (free), Google Docs and Spreadsheets will be very difficult to beat. I eagerly look forward to the upcoming release of the Google presentation program that will compete with PowerPoint.

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