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Review: Google Docs

In his latest review for Startups, Mark Needham assesses Google Docs, the search giant's online alternative to Microsoft Office

When you’re running a small business, it’s very easy to get stuck with the technology you know. While large corporations tend to have regular training and updating of skills for managers, it’s tempting to keep flogging the same computer and telephony kit you bought years ago, until suddenly you find that another business you visit or a friend you meet at a dinner party is using newer techniques that are leaving you looking as old-fashioned and slow as the IT used in most NHS hospitals.

I have always been interested in new technologies, not just shiny new gadgets, but things that simplify the way we previously did something. The buzzword of the moment in the computing trade press is “cloud computing” or “software as a service”. It is easiest to explain these terms with an example. A few years ago if you, or your child, wanted to play a computer game, you usually had to go to a shop, buy either a CD or a specially protected computer chip, and install it on your computer.

You paid once, in advance, for the physical item. Today, if your kids want to play a computer game, they usually want you to type your credit card details into a website which will let them reach the higher levels they are denied access to as free visitors, and if you are not careful it will continue billing you every month forever. This is software as a service.

Fortunately, there are many examples of online business services which are usually free or significantly cheaper than the option of buying a whole software package. Google Docs, a group of free programs which anybody who creates a Google Mail or Gmail identity can use, is one such service.

It includes rather simplified equivalents of Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs, which you use online, directly from a web browser. You can either upload your existing documents, or create new documents on it.

The documents are stored on Google’s servers, and you can log on and update them from anywhere with an internet connection. You can update them from a PC or a Mac and, crucially, you can allow other people to log in and use the same document.

Having several copies of the same document lying around on my hard disk has often led me to amend the wrong version, before realising what I had done and then having to do it again to the right version.

Google Docs allows me to upload the master document to Google’s servers. Other people can then work on the master document, at the same time if required, or I can update something and then ask my colleague to review it. It is much more efficient than emailing spreadsheets to and fro.

However, while Google documents are easy to use, they lack the advanced features which users of Microsoft Office are accustomed to. The spreadsheet, in particular, is very light compared to Excel. The most glaring difference is that typing text which is too long for the visible spreadsheet cell will not overflow the text into the next cell – the end of your sentence just disappears behind the cell boundary. This is a disability which Excel overcame sometime in the 1980s.

The presentations program is similarly weak in handling PowerPoint presentations – some colours or boundaries seemed to just disappear when I tried uploading a corporate presentation to it.

But if you need a way of storing documents offsite and collaborating with colleagues at a distance, Google Docs is hard not to like. It is free for individual use, and I have used it for over two years without ever having seen significant downtime.

There is a corporate version where, for a fee, Google’s software can be applied to documents on a corporate server but for a small team, the free version can go a long way.

Price: Free Likely impact on your business: 7/10 Likely impact on you: 6/10 Usability: 7/10 Pro: A free alternative to MS Office, available anywhere Con: Spreadsheet is weak, and there are incompatibilities with Office

Mark Needham is the founder of Widget.co.uk , a specialist B2B distributor of consumer electronic goods. His book, 66 Plots Updated was written entirely on Google Docs.

 

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