Online Office Space


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I wrote this month's column online. Normally I use Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, but the hard drive on my main laptop computer crashed and though all my document files are backed up, it will take some time to reinstall my applications. Before installing Microsoft Office 2007, and because I am on deadline, I thought I would try to write this column using online office tools. While I was at it, I figured, why not write about Google's online office tools themselves?

Google has renamed its 2006 Writely software acquisition "Google Documents" and combined it with Google Spreadsheets in a strong initiative to extend its reach into the desktop software market (http://docs.google.com). The first impression is of a web-based tool, but with familiar desktop menus like File and Edit.

The first surprise is the many Save options under the File menu, including an option to save as HTML, which reveals the fact that under the hood this is a WYSIWYG HTML editor. You can also save in Word, OpenOffice, or PDF documents. Saving as HTML actually saves as XHTML. This means it is also XML, and Google might someday become a leader in structured XML authoring. (Pleasant surprise two: The HTML code created by Google Documents is wonderfully free of the mass of worthless tags in HTML files generated by Microsoft Word.)

Google Documents has a strong revision history, noting changes made by different contributors. I can invite my editor to collaborate online, at which point she can see how my column has evolved. With a click she can revert to earlier versions.

On the down side, Google Documents can count words in a document as a whole, but can't count words in selected paragraphs. It insists on counting everything, including outtake text that I've decided to leave out of the final version of my column, URLs for links in the online version, or any other extraneous material.

Google Spreadsheets was adequate for simple jobs, but lacking the powerful math functions of Excel. There are many other efforts to create web-based spreadsheet services, and even complete office suites. Important spreadsheets are EditGrid (developed in Hong Kong by Team and Concepts, but recently moved to servers in North America), iRows (shut down on New Year's Eve of 2006 when its two founders were hired by Google), ThinkFree (a Korean tool that uses a Java applet to provide more powerful functions), Dan Bricklin's wikiCalc (written in Perl by the inventor of VisiCalc, the first PC-based spreadsheet ever), and Zoho Sheet, part of the Zoho Office Suite, perhaps the most ambitiously comprehensive of the new web-application packages.

Google's new initiative, Google Apps for Your Domain, which will likely change the software strategy in many organizations, includes several other web applications including Gmail, Google Talk (Instant Messaging), Google Calendar, and Google Page Creator. Page Creator can be used by small organizations to create websites, which of course are hosted by Google. Talk and Calendar provide great support for collaborative efforts in organizations with more than one physical location.

My favorite Google App is the custom version of Gmail. My personal Gmail account has always been better than my ISP email at blocking spam. Now I have a beta Google App account that uses my domain name (instead of gmail.com) but runs on Google's servers. When you send email to editor@cmsreview.com, my mail exchange records point to the Gmail IP address.

An individual's Google Apps (www.google.com/a) are unified with a common entry point called a Google Start Page, which is a mini-portal with Reuters news, financial information from CNN, weather reports, sticky notes, and surprisingly, no Google ads. Instead, ads show up on individual apps. I found the ads on my Gmail page quite interesting as they were matched to the content of my email traffic. All these beta tests show that Google is working its way toward a huge suite with capabilities that go beyond what those suites that are limited to the desktop can offer. Will Microsoft get serious about online collaboration before Google eats its lunch in the web-enabled market?

As we go to press with this column, Google has announced Google Apps, including a Premier edition that will cost $50 per year after April 30. I am surprised that with all their smarts they didn't come up with a more powerful and less techy name, at least something obvious like… Google Office. I am still mailing Word docs to my editor, but now they are just backup copies of my online Google Docs, which she can share online. Will she? Stay tuned.