Thursday, October 12, 2006

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Word processors and spreadsheets have just changed – and the way we use them will quite likely change, very soon.

Google has introduced a single interface for online Spreadsheets and Documents with very similar look and feel. It may not have all the features of Microsoft Word and Excel, but it is getting there – very fast.

It has two features which make eminent sense – and are a pain to manage using MS Office: you can share a single document with many people, and more than one person can work on the same document at once from two different places. This means that when Suhas in Pune enters something into his spreadsheet, Anupam in Bombay can see the changes in real time, and respond to them immediately. Both work from a single document or spreadsheet, instead of having to laboriously compare and consolidate individual documents or spreadsheets, and editing is possible from any computer with internet access – whether in an airport or office or at a cyber café or at a friend's house. What’s more, you can give each user the right to either only view it or to view and edit the document in question. For more details, see the footnote below.[1]

Hitherto, this was only possible with MS Sharepoint Server (an expensive server product from Microsoft) installed and accessible to each user. Alternatively, we had to live with version proliferation, a raging headache in geographically dispersed, collaborative and asynchronous environment. Collaboration is managed very simply by the system of “inviting” – which we are familiar with, when we invite others to open a GMail account. We simply Invite each contact to view or invite to edit. Only condition is that all users have a gmail account.

Existing Word and Excel files can be uploaded and used online. You have the choice of saving the files online, so that they can be accessed by you anywhere from any computer connected to the Net. You can also save them in Word or Excel format on your local machine. You can also create PDF files and save files in Open Document format (the format popularized by Open Office), which is something like compressed (zipped) set of XML files conforming to the OpenOffice DTD.

As the number of your files increase, you can use the features of tags, stars and of course, google searches, to organize, search and retrieve what you want. These features are probably familiar to users of GMail. Try out this service!

Check out the official Google Docs and Spreadsheets Blog.

[1] Unlike chat windows, others cannot see what you are typing in, when you are online. Once the document is refreshed, or autosaved, collaborators will be able to see your changes, and you'll be able to see theirs. Once you make a change to a particular cell of a spreadsheet and exit that cell, collaborators will be able to see your changes and vice-versa.

If you're the creator of the spreadsheet, you can remove editors/viewers at any time, and that access removal is instantaneous.

The people whom you've invited can now add other collaborators to that spreadsheet. You can decide whether you want this capability turned on for each spreadsheet individually - the default for new spreadsheets is to allow collaborators to add other collaborators. However, collaborators cannot remove the owner from his or her spreadsheet.

People you invite to "edit" the spreadsheet can change any aspect of the spreadsheet they wish, while people invited to "view" can only navigate around the spreadsheet without changing the content, format, or structure at all. Both viewers and editors may save the spreadsheet to their personal spreadsheets storage, or to their local storage (using “File" > "Export" command).

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