Google Docs and Spreadsheets (formerly known as Writely and Google Spreadsheets)
My plan for this post involved a bit of a discussion about Writely and Google Spreadsheets only I discovered that these two tools have recently been integrated into one main site called Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Google Docs and Spreadsheets ("GDS" because typing Google Docs and Spreadsheets all the time is cramping my fingers) is Google’s web-based word-procesing and spreadsheet application and quite possibly the beginning of an attack on more traditional, desktop based office applications like the market leader, Microsoft Office and the open source upstart, OpenOffice. Now it may come to pass that GDS will compete directly with its competitors but that day has not yet come to pass. At present GDS is a pretty impressive platform but it is limited.
There is a fair amount of interoperability with Word/Excel and OpenOffice’s applications through the ability to upload Office and OpenOffice documents into GDS and then to save edited documents as Word/Excel and OpenOffice docs (as well as pdfs) but the applications themselves don’t compare with their desktop cousins when it comes to raw functionality. I imported a Word document with tables and GDS went "ergh!" and vomited a mess of table gridlines and text. But that is the negative stuff. On the plus side GDS allows for people to collaborate together on documents by inviting each other to do so. In this way GDS begins to resemble wiki tools like JotSpot. You even have the ability to track versions and revert to earlier document versions. I had a query about the security that is built in to GDS and found the following:
If you want your documents or spreadsheet to be private, they will be. We use a secure authentication method, the Google Account username, to control access to any document or spreadsheet. From here users grant access to whomever they want. Your documents and spreadsheets are private by default. Unless you share the published or shared URL with other people, only those that you invite will see your files.
Another useful application of GDS is as a blog publishing tool. GDS supports a couple hosted blogging services out of the box and appears to also support platforms you may host yourself. haven’t tested how well GDS rates as a blog publishing tool. Perhaps take a look at this post on TechCrunch or on Google generally. There is also a pretty comrehensive review on CNet’s Web 2.0 blog.
It seems that GDS is part of a growing phenomenon called Office 2.0 and includes such other luminaries as Freshbooks, an awesome online billing solution. Whatever you call it, GDS is a pretty useful service if you are looking to generate basic documents on the go or which you want to share with other people. GDS features tagging and RSS feeds for public documents. One of the comments to my first post in this series was that Google’s products enable you to acces your office wherever you are. I think that really depends on what your office needs are but GDS is certainly a big step in that direction. I’d like to see things like document templates and better handling of things like tables and even integration into Gmail before I see it as a real alternative.
Google Groups started out as a skinny newsgroups (remember those?) interface in a time when people were moving across to groups where people could discuss things and post their media for others to see. A good example of this sort of service has been Yahoo! Groups which has evolved into a great platform.
Google Groups was recently revamped and a beta version released which made it more of a group that a newsgroup interface complete with new media sharing capabilities and more.
One of the cool features is the addition of a conversation view for the posts in the discussion threads. This pretty much makes the experience of posting to the group very similar to using Gmail.
To add to this the new beta site allows you to create rich content pages (introducing a Pages-like functionality to Google Groups) and upload 100MB worth of files and media to the group to be shared with other members.
Wrapping up my overview of Google’s tools to collaborate and organise your life brings me to Google Calendar.
This service did the rounds in the rumour mill till it was finally released a little while ago. It made sense to add a calendaring application to Gmail and make it possible for people to organise their lives even better using the tools Google gave us.
Google Calendar runs on something that either is AJAX or works like it. Adding events and manipulating them is as easy as clicking and typing and there is even a fair degree of intelligence built into the software so if you click on a time slot and type "Meeting at Joe", the event created will identify the subject as a meeting and the venue as "Joe". If you would like to migrate from Outlook or iCal to Google Calendar, you can import those calendars and then subscribe via RSS to the Google Calendar version (you can certainly do this with iCal, I’m not sure about Outlook) and use the online version as your primary calendar. This would make a lot of sense if Google Calendars worked the same way as the local versions but it doesn’t.
I have a few gripes which dissuade me from moving to Google Calendar wholesale, despite the value of having calendars I can access wherever I am. For starters, event notifications don’t appear to be embedded into the events themselves and are rather handled at a system level so events that are downloaded into a local calendar via RSS lack notifications which I rely on to remind me of events. You can have notifications sent to you by sms but this feature doesn’t seem to work in South Africa. I believe Google is working on this though. They responded to a fault report I submitted and indicated they are aware of this bug and are working on it.
I would like to be able to maintain a task list on Google Calendar as well as be able to publish local calendars to my Google calendars but the Google calendars don’t appear to be writable. My last gripe is that while Google Calendar advertises that event invitations are automatically recognised and integrated into Google Calendar (depending on your preferences), this only seems to apply to invitations sent from other Gmail users. Invitations sent from iCal and Outlook appear as invitations you must download first or add manually. Better integration with popular calendar applications like iCal and Outlook will really improve adoption of Google Calendar.
Despite my gripes, I really enjoy using Google Calendar and look forward to further updates in time.
In the last exciting installment of this series "Its a Google Life", I’ll take a look at Google Analytics, Google Earth and one or two other useful things to make your Google life much more fulfilling so watch this space and have a Google day!