I recently purchased yet another laptop. My old, very heavy 17" laptop was
found to be more than suitable by my assistant, who had to juggle computer use
with another member of staff prior to the acquisition of my new machine. The new
laptop came with a coupon for the latest version of Microsoft Office but
despite the discount the price tag for the software, it was still a lot of
money. This led me to explore alternatives to enriching Bill Gates et al
yet another time.
Google not too long ago added well over a dozen on-line and downloadable
applications to its now famous searching features. It took me a while, but at
last an investigation into the Google "Documents" feature astounded me. That's
high praise from someone who's enjoyed the luxury of costly yet high-performance
Microsoft Office applications. Even more astounding is that
this robust collection of applications is available free to anyone willing
to store one's documents on Google's server. If one is dubious that Google
will look at your documents and perhaps engage in the
distasteful practice of using your data for market research
purposes, a web-based system like this is not for you.
The only other concern about web-based systems like this would be loss of
documents due to bugs in Google's system. It's easy enough, however, to save
Google-created documents to one's own computer. From there, backup and double
backup possibilities are endless.
The Document Creation Arena
The author having no real experience with anything but Microsoft
products in the past, this article and its comparisons will be somewhat myopic.
There are other suites of the usual culprits (word processor, spreadsheet, and
perhaps an image processor and/or a presentation creator) available. There are
also individual, competitive products. All cost less (some far less) than the
Microsoft equivalents and are fine for users who don't demand the feature-packed
Microsoft products. Corel's WordPerfect gave Microsoft Word a run for its
money. There are still die-hard Lotus 1-2-3 fans who prefer the spreadsheet
program to Microsoft's Excel. Lotus is no longer its own entity, having been
bought by IBM some time ago.
An organization called OpenOffice.org has taken an office application suite
from Sun Microsystems and made it open-source freeware. Another article will
be dedicated to the comparison of OpenOffice to Microsoft's offerings. It is
certainly as economical a choice for someone who needs office applications as is
the free Google product. (OpenOffice does ask for donations of money, opinions
and improvements in the same way all freeware organizations do.)
Chevrolet or Cadillac?
Ever get into a rental car and spend a half an hour just figuring out how to
get going? Ever fall prey to the Euro-style electric window switches located on
the console between front seats? (Yes, it's true, a friend who has a car
equipped like that drove in silence with a Cheshire cat-like grin watching me
with lit cigarette in my mouth search all over the doors, even under the
handles, looking for the damned switch).
The best analogy of the Google/Microsoft difference is like comparing cars.
Any car in working order can get one from point A to point B. Google's suite
lacks the seemingly infinite bells and whistles Microsoft's product offers.
Google, however, has created a GUI that's so intuitive and simple I wondered
why they weren't getting sued by Microsoft, so similar were the icons,
arrangement of features and methods of getting things done.
A simple spreadsheet (a detailed invoice, in this case) created by Google
docs worked fine but for the fact that it did not paste well into email programs
(Yahoo and Gmail). The learning curve for Google's spreadsheet utility is not
steep at all, and where questions might arise (for example, the formatting of
numbers and decimal places), large windows displaying "most used" options with
branches to other options appear. I missed nothing about the Microsoft program
Excel, but for the fact that one cannot see formulae in a data entry line by
merely rolling over a cell; one must double-click the cell and do one's editing
The lack of a ruler gave this typist the creeps, but once again, it's a
matter of getting used to the limited choices afforded users of Google's
software. The word processor has a word counter, very handy for writers working
within limitations. Those who'd use a simple plain text editor to get the
business of writing done don't have the luxury of a word counter (nor a
spell-checker). This makes Google's program great for those who don't want to
grapple with the learning curve and "auto-formatting" features contained in the
I'm a huge proponent of paperless offices. The built-in Acrobat
converter is a cool feature that used to have to be purchased separately when
buying Microsoft products. Now, however, I believe the "professional" version of
Microsoft Office has a facility for creating the very handy .PDF document files.
It's Nice To Share
Authors of Google documents can choose to assign a URL to each document,
allowing others to view, comment on, or even, if the creator wishes, edit the
document in question. To Google's credit, the author can instruct the document
to be saved so as to be editable without having to log into Google using
a username and password. Those interested in more security shouldn't have a big
problem, however, because more and more people are signing up for Google's Gmail
email client all the time and therefore can use their information for Gmail to
get into Google Documents.
Also to Google's credit, the on-line nature of the documents makes
collaboration with those not on your office network or VPN a lot more easy
than emailing Microsoft documents all over the place and potentially having two
different versions of the same document created at the same time. Google's HELP
facility gently promotes a "team" or professional version of the system for
With regard to compatibility, it's amazing how many formats one may import
into Google Documents, including the popular Microsoft formats. Size limitations
are generous, each document maxes out at 500 kilobytes, with allowance for
additional 2 megabyte embedded images. You're allowed to store up to 5,000
documents and/or presentations and 5,000 images. Spreadsheets have a limit of
1,000; but storage space is unlimited. However, if you want to create a sheet
with more than 200,000 cells in it, you're just out of luck — unless you
purchase extra storage space, which is available at nominal cost to power users.
A concern of mine was that presentations are limited to 10 MB. My Powerpoint
presentations have often exceeded a gigabyte including images, music and
animation. Again, space may be purchased.
There will certainly be those who'll absolutely refuse to entrust their
documents to storage on a distant server, more specifically a server owned by a
company that's rapidly growing and is already going from humble,
model-of-simplicity innovator to despised "big corporation" status the same way
Microsoft did. Despite Google's growth, their corporate culture, at least as
reflected in their online help documents, product documentation and sales
efforts, is mellow and easy to digest. Should Google step over the line the way
Microsoft did many years ago, they'll be slitting their own throats
The pessimist in me likens all of the great free goodies available from
Google to the generous samples of illicit substances that a drug
dealer doles out free of charge to a potential new customer. I can't help but
think that once we've grown to rely on the simplicity, ease of use and ease of
collaboration of Google Documents, they'll pull the rug out from under us and
start charging for it. Who knows? Perhaps they'll just slide in little
plain-text ads just like they do when one is using their search engine, or
visiting the homepage of a website that's content-rich and needs a
way to pay for bandwidth encumbered by guest users.
By example: I don't recall whether they still do it or not, but MSN started
charging for their organized chatrooms after they'd garnered a few million
users. I had occasionally visited a very friendly group that was populated by a
core bunch of bright, happy folks. I did not ante up even the token amount
required to continue membership, however. I don't know how many members of that
group paid to continue their participation.
On the other side of the coin, even if the cost of, let's say, a version of
Google documents that's revved-up a bit were half that of the Microsoft
products, I'd bite. Why? Because at this time I don't think Google's going to
charge for something that's not immensely popular. They're a trustworthy
organization. There's been none of the controversy about exploitation of
personal information that, for example, has recently plagued Facebook.
My final thought is that the shareability of Google Documents makes the
concept perfect, for example, for an E2 mentor to scan new users' work (with all
due respect to E2's new multiple scratchpad feature).