Google makes Docs more like Microsoft Office

Google Docs is getting better in some ways, but in other ways, Office still rules. Collaboration features remain strong, but Office 2010 is just around the corner.

IT pros said that features in the latest version of Google Docs -- released this week -- make the application suite even more similar to Microsoft Office. Although changes came at the expense of offline support, for some users, the improvements outweigh the loss.

Google replaced its browser extension, Gears, with HTML5 to make its collaboration products perform faster and support more capabilities. However, it has dropped offline Docs support, which includes documents, drawings, presentations and spreadsheets.

One IT manager who switched from Microsoft Office to Google Apps last year is fine with the tradeoff because of the speed and functionality improvements.

"Discontinuing offline access is not ideal, but I don't think it will be that big of a deal," said Ben Baugher, a systems administrator at a heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment seller in Arkansas. "Most of the offline use is with mail and calendar [in Google Apps], which are still supported."

Jason McAninch, head of IT consultancy J-TEK, said his clients adopted the Google Apps product suite, which includes Gmail, calendar, Google Docs, Groups, Sites and video, because they almost always have online access through a traditional connection, Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity.

Accessing Google documents offline
As of May 3, Google Docs users who want to access their documents offline have to save them as read-only PDFs or as Microsoft Office documents, which are useful only if the user has Microsoft Office installed locally. Changes to offline versions won't sync to online versions without third-party software such as Memeo Inc.'s AutoSync software, which lists on the vendor's website for $29.99.

Google Docs offline access was added in 2008 and gave users a local version of documents for offline use. Those documents would sync with the server when the user's machine was back online.

The company downplayed the importance of offline Docs support, saying in an interview that very few people actually use the feature. But in the same breath, the company promised to offer improved offline support as soon as possible. Google did not provide a timeline.

By adopting HTML5, Google was able to address requests for better document-formatting options including a margin ruler, better numbering and bullets, spell check and better image-placement tools.

Google's spreadsheets now include tools that Microsoft Excel users will find familiar, such as a formula bar that can be edited, cell autocomplete and drag-and-drop columns, along with real-time collaboration capabilities that let many users work on a spreadsheet at once.

Google Docs not up to par with Excel
The spreadsheets and presentations in previous versions of Google Docs haven't been up to par with Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, and that has held back some corporate adoption.

For instance, Shaneal Manek, chief technology officer of Postabon, a New York-based deal-locating website, deployed Google Apps to "casual" users in the company but said it hasn't met the needs of "power users."

Postabon's co-founder, who handles accounting, builds the business model, and performs other graphic- and data-intensive tasks, found that Google Docs isn't as programmable as Excel or fast enough, and Postabon's CEO refused to use Google Apps because its presentation offering doesn't match PowerPoint's performance, said Manek.

"It gets bogged down when he works on big documents with lots of graphics," Manek said. "Ironically, he runs PowerPoint on a virtual machine on his Mac."

But Google said it isn't trying to match Microsoft Office feature for feature. The company said it consistently adds features based on mainstream user demands -- which are typically existing Microsoft Office features. At the same time, Google's browser-based approach includes multiuser collaboration capabilities that Microsoft hasn't offered.

Google's multiuser collaboration has been the company's niche, and it now supports up to 50 users working on the same file at the same time, along with live chats and moderation. (Documents appear as read-only for users over the 50 maximum).

"Being browser-based, we can do things that simply can't be done with documents located on desktops," said Anil Sabharwal, Google Docs product manager.

Online collaboration won't be unique to Google for long -- Microsoft will offer similar Web-based collaboration capabilities in Office 2010 via Office Live Workspace, which is due out in May. Whether Microsoft's online collaboration capabilities will be up to snuff with what Google has been doing since 2006 remains to be seen.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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