Productivity software

New Google Docs Features Step-by-Step

With the release of Microsoft Office 2010 impending, Google unveiled new features and functions in its cloud-based Google Docs. The changes don't leapfrog--or even fully catch up with--what Microsoft Office is capable of, but they do address some common complaints, and expand on perhaps the core competency of Google Docs--real-time collaboration online.

Setting up a standard Google Docs account is free, and provides cloud-based productivity applications to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms, as well as a folder for online file storage. Earlier this year, Google modified the Google Docs folder functionality to enable uploading of any file type.

Of course, Google doesn't want to settle for providing inferior cloud-based equivalents for consumers too broke or too cheap to afford the "real thing". Google is striving to compete directly against Microsoft and to convince more small and medium businesses--or even enterprises--that Google can provide a comprehensive office productivity, messaging, and collaboration platform that is accessible from anywhere--by virtue of being in the cloud--and is cost-effective compared with implementing similar functionality from Microsoft.

That is no small feat. Microsoft enjoys a comfortably dominant 90-plus percent of the office productivity suite market. It is indicative of Microsoft's ubiquitous role that competing software--including Google Docs, or OpenOffice.org--endeavor to import and export files in formats compatible with Microsoft. Basically, it's OK to provide an alternative office productivity solution, but if it can't interoperate with Microsoft Office its essentially useless.

Let's jump in and take a hands-on, detailed look at what Google has unveiled today. To begin with, let's look at what Google has done with the spreadsheet editor.

Spreadsheets

Jonathan Rochelle, group product manager for Google, noted in the Official Google Docs Blog "With the new spreadsheets editor, you'll see significant speed and performance improvements -- spreadsheets load faster, are more responsive and scroll more seamlessly."

I logged in to my Google Docs account and began by starting a new spreadsheet doc. At the top right of the page, next to the links for settings or signing out, there is a link labeled "New Version". Click on that link and then select the "Try New Version" button to check out what's new with the spreadsheet tool.

I use the Google Docs spreadsheet more than any of the other Google Docs apps by far. I use it in a collaborative fashion with other PCWorld writers and, although we can each see the updates made by the others, the speed of the updates leaves a little to be desired and sometimes results in us typing over each other's cells.

Google has taken notice of the lag in real-time updates, and has made some significant improvements. It is probably related to the purchase of AppJet, A company created by a team of ex-Google employees that redefined what real-time really means. Bottom line, it's a lot easier to collaborate in real-time without the lag.

My favorite new feature of the spreadsheets, though, is the new Formula bar at the top. Previously there was no way to simply edit a cell. You basically had to type the whole thing over again even if you just wanted to correct a typo. Now, you can click on a cell and the contents will appear in the Formula bar at the top where you can do your editing.

Google also added auto-complete to make repetitive entries more efficient, and you can now drag and drop columns to move them, and quicker navigation between spreadsheets. It is still eons behind Microsoft Excel in many ways, but it will suffice for most users' basic spreadsheet needs and the online, real-time collaboration features are a win for Google.

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