Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: Google Docs
It may seem odd to include a SaaS offering in this mix, but SaaS applications have been repeatedly positioned as challengers to desktop applications, and Google Docs is one of the most visible incarnations of same. It’s improved enormously since its original incarnations, but I’m still skeptical of using it for anything more than fairly rudimentary work. The feature set is extremely basic, and the limitations of what can be accomplished within a Web browser hinder you all the more.

 

 

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Google Docs can work one of two ways: as a creator for new documents (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings) or an importer for existing ones in many common formats (Word, Excel, ODF, PDF, and so on). The formatting of newly created documents is limited but stable. You can download Google Docs documents in Office and ODF formats, and you won’t run into compatibility problems or document degradation when opening them in Office or OpenOffice.org. Documents imported from outside translate reasonably well, but only up to a point, and there’s often not much way to tell what will be preserved without importing a file and inspecting it by hand. It’s best if you don’t intend to rely heavily on fidelity to the original document and just need to examine the text itself.

The feature mix for text documents in Google Docs is useful, but very limited. A document can feature headers, footers, footnotes, and tables of contents — but no indices. There’s apparently no way to edit the underlying style sheet for a document or create new style declarations, so formatting has to be done by hand. Page numbers are handled very awkwardly — they can be added only when you print a document and at no other time.

Many of the little quirks I observed when working with imported text documents are reminiscent of the problems that can creep in when switching between Word and OpenOffice.org. If a Word document has formatting stored in its master template (paragraph spacing, the default font, and so on), they don’t show up consistently when the document is imported into Google Docs. Since this can happen with other programs, this is probably not a limitation of Docs per se, but you should be mindful of the fact.

The same rules about formatting and features apply with spreadsheets. Basic worksheets upload and render fine, but the more complex the document, the less chance you’ll have of being able to work properly with the end result. The mortgage calculator spreadsheet, for instance, broke completely when uploaded, although simpler spreadsheets (no graphs) worked fine. Presentations fared about the same: The more complex the original document, the less chance of it being rendered in anything like a useful fashion. Transitions aren’t preserved at all, which makes sense since they can’t be added to presentations created in Docs itself anyway.

A major limitation of Google Docs is the fact that it’s an in-browser application, with all of the possible behavior quirks that go with such a thing. An easy example: the trapping of keystrokes. If the document itself has focus and you press Ctrl-A, Google Docs interprets that as a command to select all the text in the document, which is to be expected. But if some other part of the window has focus — maybe because of a stray mouse click — then the browser’s select-all function is invoked. This can be frustrating and further underscores the difference between a stand-alone application and a mix of HTML and JavaScript running in a Web browser. On top of that are all the quirks manifested by different browsers themselves, which after all this time is still an issue, I’m afraid.

One thing about Google Docs that I did appreciate is the way any document can be exported in a variety of common formats: Office, ODF, plain text, RTF, HTML, and PDF. This makes it an easy way to create those document types if all you have access to is a Web browser. I also liked the way multiple people can collaborate on a document in real time, a feature that will no doubt only become more useful and widely demanded over time.

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