Google Docs: Online and free, but limited.

Google docs is a service that allows those with a Google account to edit, store, and share Microsoft-like documents online (or export them to a Microsoft format and use them as usual offline). Now, I am all for anything that can reasonably save me from the torture that was the write-up of my masters, when MS word redefined some of my pictures as millions of page breaks when I put page numbers into my thesis (I suspect the character combination used to represent a page break is something that could conceivably appear in a jpeg file), but I don’t think Google’s word processor is it — and I suspect this holds true for the other document editors as well (certainly I have recently read one report of a catastrophic crash of the presentation-making software).

I’m going to speak about the word processor in Google Docs rather than the rest of the suite, because I have the most experience with it. At first glance it appears very much to be a stripped down word processor, not unlike the blog editor I am using right now. On the face of it, this should be enough for the majority of users, based on the 80/20 rule. Sadly, though, this is not the case. There are some areas where Google’s word processor has missed the opportunity to improve over Word, such as picture placement, which is horrible in Word and merely average in Google Docs. There are some areas where Google Docs is limited by what HTML can offer, for example the limited customisability of lists, and the inability to add drawings (for diagrams for example). There are other ways in which Google Docs could have capitalised on its HTML capabilities and hasn’t, for example not opening hyperlinks when you click on them (ideally in another window or another tab). I don’t know what kind of a limitation it is that forces Google Docs to open everything in a new tab, but that is also fairly seriously irksome (and would be even more so if using an un-tabbed browser). And for me, the lack of integration with bibliographic software is a real problem (though I am aware that this is a specialised usage).

The thing that concerns me most about Google Docs, though, is writing any kind of work-related document under Google’s privacy umbrella. I have Google email, and Google pictures, I write a couple of Google blogs, and I have lists of books I want to read and movies I want to see in Google documents. I actually don’t think there is any such thing as total privacy on the web, and I don’t mind Google sucking up my personal information — I am the only person that can affect. I am less comfortable, though uploading documents related to my work (which is not even all that confidentail but which affects people other than me) to a site with this in the Terms Of Use (TOU):

“You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Service. By submitting, posting or displaying the Content you give Google a worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through the Service for the sole purpose of enabling Google to provide you with the Service in accordance with its Privacy Policy.” (link).

Given that the Google Docs privacy policy incorporates the Google privacy policy, and the Google Privacy policy is subject to change — with your consent, if your privacy is reduced, though I am guessing it would be Hobson’s choice (accept the new terms or go elsewhere) — and given that it takes three weeks to expunge account details if you terminate your account…I am simply not comfortable storing work-related material on the servers of a commercial company whose interests could run counter to that of my employer. Maybe this makes me a paranoid luddite who should be wearing a tinfoil cap, but when it comes to information about my employer I am finicky (even though I doubt they would care).

This is not to say that there aren’t some wonderful features of Google Docs, however. The autosave is excellent and functional, and I wish MS had done this well with their autosave (saving to avoid lost work is a mechanical, repetitive task and should be done by a machine). This autosave is coupled with excellent versioning, so if it autosaves something you later decide you don’t want, you can go back to the earlier version. I haven’t tried the sharing features, but it would be hard for them to be worse than Microsoft Word (and with the versioning, it is likely that they are better). There are two big drawcards for Google Docs, though: It’s free, and it’s online. For me, these are the reasons I use Google Docs at all. I can access it from anywhere just by clicking on a link in my email, and I keep lists of books I want to read and movies I want to see that I can add to from anywhere.

Google Docs is great for information you want to keep online, but if you’re looking for a more fully functional free document package, or one that isn’t online, I recommend OpenOffice.


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