Productivity software

Google Docs Gets a Ruler — Is It Aping Word?

The new version of Google Docs came out this week, which my colleague Ron Miller has briefly reviewed. One thing Miller pointed out that was of interest to me: the Google Docs interface now provides a ruler.

Rulers, in case you were wondering, are there to provide document creators some reasonable idea of where the text lies in relation to the margins of fibrous/pulp plant material known as paper.

Which leads me to a very blunt question: why on Earth would Google Docs need such a thing?

Granted, it's not the end of the world that Docs provides a ruler... ultimately, it doesn't really effect users one way or the other. But it's a bit irksome to me nonetheless, because it feels like this is just Yet Another Attempt to Be Like Word.

Word, by virtue of (pick one) its feature set, its ubiquity, or the sheer sales and marketing strength of Microsoft, has become the target towards which all other word processors must aim.

Seriously, this needs to stop.

Word, in terms of size and complexity, has become ridiculously bulky and feature-ridden, as it tries to cater to a world of users who need to get everything down on paper in the prettiest way they can. And, for most users, this is a complete waste of time.

While I will concede that there are valid use cases for a word processor, like putting together documents that need to be slick (like a brochure) that are very complex (like a book with an index), or are legal in nature. I don't believe that this is something a lot of users need. Most users these days are communicating with e-mail, and if they are using paper, it's typically to create documents that are very templatable, like letters and resumes.

I think by tossing in a ruler, Google Docs is trying to make the interface transition from Word to Docs easier for users. I think this is silly, for one important reason: the real draw to Docs is not making documents that are slick and pretty on paper. The real draw is collaboration.

At my last employer, we used Google Docs quite a bit: not for final presentation and layout, mind you, but for real-time collaboration of documents. Putting together whitepapers and other business documents written by multiple authors is very difficult with iterations of a document being passed back and forth. Even using a document management system like Alfresco or SharePoint is tricky, because only one user can touch a document at a time. In Google Docs, you can all pile on and make changes live.

This is a good thing, because it's something no other word processor can currently provide.

But, as useful as it is, it still could be better. The document library interface seen when you open Docs is very cumbersome and slow. I would much rather Google spent its time improving this feature and other collaborative tools than trying to copy Word functionality.

And this goes for all of the non-Word apps out there who try to match Word features. Yeah, I'm looking at you, OpenOffice.org.

Play on your strengths, not follow others'.

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