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Google Docs Spreadsheets Get More Sophisticated

A common criticism of Google Docs when it first launched was that it was primitive. Its word processor was barely better than WordPad, for example, which has been free with Windows since the 1980s.

In some ways this was part of Google's plan. Competing with Microsoft Office was desirable but only after they'd pulled the rug from under Microsoft's feet with Docs' killer feature: collaborative editing and document sharing. No need for an expensive Sharepoint server to work on docs with colleagues--all you need is a browser.

However, none of that stopped Google gradually introducing Office-like features as time has gone on. Recently it's added two features to the spreadsheet tool that--for me, at least--make the app a complete package.

The first feature is filtering. Sophisticated users shouldn't get their hopes up, however; the filtering is essentially AutoFiltering, as found in Excel, although a little easier to use. But it's not possible to filter via "greater than" or "lesser than" values, for example, or to apply additional sub-filters.

Those to whom spreadsheets are an undiscovered country should know that filtering provides the ability to sort data within tables, and also pick out data by row headings. Setting up a filter is automatic; once the filter button on the toolbar is clicked within a table (it's at the far right of the toolbar), Docs will work out the range of data the filter should be applied to, although filters can also be applied solely to selected columns.

For example, say you have a table in a spreadsheet displaying sales staff alongside the figures they've achieved for various regions. Applying a filter would allow you to hive off one or more individuals to examine their figures in isolation, or to sort the regional figures by smallest to largest (or vice versa) at a single-click. Crucially, none of the changes are permanent, allowing for flexibility, and the filter can be removed at any time; just click the Filter button again.

The second new feature lets you select non-contiguous ranges of data for graphs. Previously, it was only possible to create a graph by clicking and dragging to select a single range of data, or by specifying a range of cells that neighbored each other. However, it's now possible to create a graph containing data only at the top and bottom of a range of data, for example, or even to graph data in two separate areas of a spreadsheet, provided they're similar enough (meaning they have the same headings).

To do so, select the initial data and click the graphing button on the toolbar. Then click the Select Ranges link and, in the dialog box that appears, click the Add Another Range link. Then click and drag to select the new range. Repeat until all the data required is selected.

Now you can filter content in Google Spreadsheets.
Now you can filter content in Google Spreadsheets.
Also new to all Google Docs apps is the capability to convert older documents so they can be edited using the "new" Google Docs introduced this time last year, which allows real-time collaborative editing. The conversion button will appear as an option whenever any old document is opened, and there's a chance to preview the document to ensure the formatting remains intact. Google warns that there are some issues with how tables are handled, so previewing is probably a good idea.

Google describes the new spreadsheet features as being among their most requested, and it's not unreasonable to wonder why such essential functions have taken so long to arrive. After all, Google Docs' spreadsheets have been with us for five years now.

However, as the introduction of the new collaborative editing system this time last year proves, Google simply has different priorities for its Docs suite. There's nothing to be gained by recreating Microsoft Office online. Most people already have Office on their business computers and, even if they don't, they can get a compatible analog in the form of LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Instead, Google is introducing the power of the cloud to the office suite concept.

If you haven't taken a look recently, now's a good time to see what Google Docs can do for your business.

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