A browser-based word processor means you don’t have to create documents on the backs of your credit-card receipts when you’re on the road without a computer, and a browser-based spreadsheet means you don’t have to make calculations on your fingers and toes. Browser-based apps like these also let you collaborate with almost anyone who has access to a Web browser, instantly publish a document or spreadsheet online, or post a document to any standard blog. Google Docs & Spreadsheets, officially in beta stage but sleek and almost trouble-free, is the most prominent among at least a half-dozen online application suites, built on the solid foundation of the Writely.com word processor (which Google acquired a few years ago) and the built-from-scratch Google Spreadsheets. Regardless of how complete it is, Google Docs & Spreadsheets’ combination of power and convenience is impressive, and I was only occasionally unsettled by quirks in its collaboration features.
Though Google Docs doesn’t try to match Microsoft Word’s overpowering feature set, it does let you create fully formatted documents complete with pictures, tables, and hyperlinks. You can also upload documents as Word, RTF, HTML, OpenOffice, and plain text files and download documents in Word, RTF, HTML, OpenOffice, and PDF formats. The program has more power than you see on the menu. For example, if you upload a Word file with footnotes or endnotes, Writely displays the notes correctly, lets you edit their content, and exports them correctly—although you can’t create new notes within Writely unless you make tricky manual edits to the underlying HTML.
You can invite other people to read or edit your document by entering their e-mail addresses on a form, and a toolbar notifies you if someone else is editing a document at the same time as you are. Revisions are synchronized every few seconds. If someone else deletes a sentence while you’re adding words to it, a pop-up lets you preserve the words you were adding, but if you want to get back the sentence that your colleague deleted, you’ll have to click on a Revisions tab and extract the sentence from the earlier versions that Writely stores automatically. A convenient button lets you compare two earlier versions, with the differences highlighted by color-coding.
Google Spreadsheets supports hundreds of functions and multiple pages, and exceeds Excel with its refreshingly clean interface and collaboration feature that lets up to 50 people work on the same spreadsheet at once. You can import Excel spreadsheets up to 500KB in size and export to Excel, OpenOffice, and PDF formats; the current sheet (not multiple-page files) can be exported to HTML and CSV.
My biggest beef with Google Docs & Spreadsheets is that I can’t make it work on the Mac-based Safari browser. It officially supports Safari 2.0.4, but on three different Macs with exactly that version installed, it told me I needed to upgrade to the version I already had. (Fortunately it works with Firefox on all platforms, but Firefox probably won’t be on the Mac that you need to use in a crisis). My other beef is that Google Docs & Spreadsheets uses separate browser windows for the index to your documents and for each document itself. Zoho Writer and the Zoho Sheet spreadsheet have similar editing features and use a more convenient directory pane on the left-hand side and editing window on the right. And Zoho Sheet supports basic charting, which Google doesn’t offer at all. Still, Zoho Writer feels slow and bulky and suffers from bugs in displaying and editing files. Also, Zoho’s overall user experience isn’t as smooth as Writely’s. Other no-charge online word processors include ThinkFree Office, a large Java download; the giant application suite Glide Effortless (which isn’t really effortless, but includes a word processor among dozens of other applications); AjaxWrite, small, sleek, and Firefox-only; and FlySuite, small and bug-ridden but with built-in chat among collaborators. For the moment, at least, if you’re looking for online counterparts to Word and Excel, Google Docs & Spreadsheets is the one that excels.