Google Shifts Gears: New Version of Google Docs Launched

This week Google announced the preview release of an enhanced Google Docs offering.  The latest version introduces new collaborative functionality, enhancements to the basic document and spreadsheet applications, and a new standalone diagram and drawing tool.  It is currently available to current users on an opt-in basis.

There are two aspects to the new release, 1.) collaboration tools that are unique to Google Docs, and 2.) enhancements to the applications that improve its competitiveness with other office productivity applications by adding missing features.

Google has added real-time collaboration functionality, similar in some respects to what is found in Google Wave, for the joint editing of documents and spreadsheets.  Other users (up to 50) are visible via a colored flag attached to the cursor that shows their position in the text within the document editor, or a color-coded outline of the cell selected in the spreadsheet editor.  Changes made by others are visible in real-time, with no need to refresh the document to update it.

It might be slightly uncomfortable for some knowledge workers to have their typos and not-ready-for-prime-time thoughts visible to colleagues, but the benefit of eliminating potential document conflicts may compensate in most cases.  This way of working may not be for everyone, but in certain scenarios it may make eminent sense, such as when collaborating to fill in a spreadsheet or jointly editing a document.

The document editor has been enhanced with some new functionality, including commenting, support for floating images in documents, as-you-type spell check, and the ability to set tabs with a ruler interface at the top of the screen.  The spreadsheet tool has also been enhanced with cell auto complete, a formula editing bar, and the ability to drag-and-drop columns.

The new release also includes a standalone diagram and flow chart editor.  The application enables users to create drawings and export them in PNG, JPG, SVG, and PDF file formats.  It is aimed at business use and appears best suited for flow charts and organizational diagrams.  Just as the document and spreadsheet editors, real-time collaborative editing is supported, as is the ability to start a chat session with coauthors.

Under the hood, Google Docs is also much faster, thanks to a new JavaScript layout engine and the use of HTML5.  The trade off, however, is steep as off-line use of Google Docs will disappear.  On May 3, Google will discontinue support of the previous version of Google Docs, which had allowed for offline access to documents via the Google Gears browser extension.  The company has stated that it intends to replicate the functionality with HTML5, but has not announced any specifics or a time frame.

This leaves the many users of Google Docs who require offline access in a bind.  Internet access is far from ubiquitous and there are still many places, such as most aircraft or mountain retreats, which the Internet does not reach.  The new release of Google Docs does add very appealing functionality but it comes at a significant cost.

Google’s move comes at a time when Microsoft is about to release Office 2010, which includes online access to documents and a fairly robust feature set in addition to the Office rich client, which does not require an Internet connection to work.  Organizations that want to ensure zero downtime when it comes to desktop productivity should steer clear of Google Docs until this issue has been resolved.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

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