Saturday, November 15, 2008


Recently I had the opportunity for some business related reasons as well as for some personal related reasons to try to collaborate on some word processing and spreadsheet documents. I figured this was a good opportunity to try the whole Software as a Service (SaaS) model and started using the Google Docs

I found the word processor easy to use but with Safari it had some odd behaviors at times in rendering the page and some basic copy/paste operations. Generally it worked and I liked the auto-save and accessible anywhere model. As you'd expect the word processor is severely stripped down from a MS Word or Apple Pages but for basic documents its ok. 

For the spreadsheet I was surprised at how well it worked given the more advanced problems you run into with rows and columns, formula and spreadsheet tabs. To do things like graphing you need to get plug-ins and I didn't have a good experience with that. I was was just looking to do a basic line graph over time and it was a real pain. But again for basic spreadsheet functions it worked well and again I could get at  it anywhere.

Along the way I also found a nice hack in that if you import a protected Excel spreadsheet into Google Docs it essentially unprotects it for you and you can re-export as Excel. I think Microsoft should rename that "Protect from idiots" since there are so many ways to remove spreadsheet protection.
After I had some content I tried to collaborate with others and thats where SaaS failed for me. I ran into a number of issues:

1) Just accessing the document as I sent the share invite seemed to be a problem for ALL of the people I tried to share with. The interface is simple, pick a document, choose share and then enter an email address or addresses. People get an invite with a link etc. Clinking the link lets them see the document (in the case of spreadsheets at least not all of the document) but they can't edit. 

2) To edit/collaborate they need a google account. Despite what Google thinks, not everyone has (or wants) a google account. I can understand why they needed to link the docs in somewhere but this is asking people to create a new identity etc and adds a barrier to them using it.

3) For those that got past the two above there were problems with the interface oddities, understanding the new applications and as we tried to collaborate we found the tools weak in the areas of comments, suggested changes, side by side versions etc. Ultimately we gave up. 

So to me the current SaaS offering from google with Google Docs is appropriate for single user document editing when you need access anywhere and assuming you have a google ID and are willing to learn new tools. If you need to collaborate i'd look elsewhere. 

With the personal need I fell back to the tried and true method of email Excel spreadsheets around. For the business related need i'm currently using DropBox. More to come on that experience.