Working Offline With Google Docs, Part 2

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As I mentioned last week, Google Docs recently added a new feature that enables you to edit your Google word processing documents offline. In my experience, the feature works well. The free Google Docs software-as-a-service has a lot to offer mobile professionals, including free online backup and the ability to easily view documents from any device with a Web browser.

This week: a look at areas where Google Docs could improve, plus recommendations for who could benefit from using the service.

Dislikes: No Tracked Changes, Poor Safari Support

Google Docs' features don't come close to matching Microsoft Office's desktop software. For some people, that's probably a reason to rejoice. Over time, Microsoft Office applications have grown notoriously bloated--rather like the girl who turned into a huge blueberry in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

But Google Docs lacks some key features. For example, it doesn't support Microsoft Word's Track Changes or offer an easy way to view changes made by others to a document and then accept or reject those changes. For people like me who frequently collaborate on documents, Track Changes is an essential feature.

Google Docs also lacks some less-important features that I've grown accustomed to in Word. For instance, though there's a word count feature, it applies to the entire document only. You can't select a block of text to see how many words it contains.

Currently, Apple's Safari browser on the Mac offers only limited support for Google Docs. For example, in the Mac OS Safari I was unable to view each slide of a PowerPoint presentation I'd uploaded to Google Docs--the slides were displayed as tiny thumbnails. The Google Docs message I received was: "Presentations aren't fully supported on your browser. Consider upgrading to the latest version, or switching to a supported browser."

For the record, I was using the latest version of the Mac OS Safari. And I didn't have any trouble viewing the presentation using Safari for Windows, though I received the same error message. Worth noting: Mac users can use Google Docs in Firefox without any compromises.

Also, you can view Google Docs in Apple's iPhone/iPod Touch Safari browser, the Palm OS, and BlackBerry browsers, and other mobile browsers--but currently, you can't edit them.

Perhaps most importantly, those who worry about security might not want to use Google Docs. Beyond the login screen, Google Docs doesn't default to encrypted https security. If someone gets your Google passcode, or you leave Google Docs open on your screen and step away for a while, your documents are there for the taking.

However, Arcot Systems's A-OK On-Demand authentication service adds another layer of authentication security to Google Apps Premier Edition. The A-OK service costs $1 per month per user. Google Apps Premier Edition is $50 per year per user. It offers 25GB of e-mail storage (compared to Gmail's standard 6.6GB of storage) and other features.

Google Docs frequently saves your files as you're working on them. That's good. But on several occasions, I've gone to open a file I'd worked on earlier, only to discover it had somehow reverted to an earlier version. It appeared my recent changes had vanished. Naturally, I found this alarming. Fortunately, Google Docs frequently saves the documents you're working on and creates a 'version' of the file as it's being saved. Using a feature called Revision History, you can easily open an earlier saved version of a document.

You can't upload PDF files, unless you convert them to HTML. Also, you must upload documents from your computer to Google Docs one by one; there's no option for uploading an entire folder. However, a free, third-party service, DocSyncer, automatically uploads files from your hard drive. I've tested DocSyncer informally and like it.

Who's It For?

Google seems intent on continually adding more features to Google Docs. My hope is that, given the company's delightfully uncluttered search engine interface, Google Docs will acquire more powerful and useful features--but not too many.

With the new offline feature, Google Docs is now a viable option for mobile professionals who sometimes have to work without an Internet connection. Google Docs could save nonprofits, start-ups, sole proprietors, students, and others money in Microsoft Office licensing fees, file backups, and other costs.

All that said, I'm not ready to abandon Microsoft Office desktop software just yet, given Google Docs' current limitations. And if you're a power Office user, I doubt you'd want to make the switch, either.

For More Information

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Adobe's Online Photoshop: With Photoshop Express, Adobe is now offering a free image editing tool and free Web-based photo storage. Now in public beta, Photoshop Express makes image editing available whenever you've got an Internet connection. But the service currently has some annoyances and omissions. For example, Photoshop Express currently lacks a sophisticated undo tool, and you can't save your edited image as a local file for use outside Photoshop Express (Adobe says a fix is in the works).

A Digital Ink Pen: Iogear's Mobile Digital Scribe is an ink pen with a digital component. The pen saves everything you write to plain paper as a digital file. When you plug the pen's receiver into a Windows PC, you can upload your handwritten notes and convert them into text documents via the bundled My Script Notes 2.1 Lite optical character recognition software. At $130, the pen is a bit pricey, but fun to use.

Extended-Life Battery vs. External Laptop Battery: What's the better option for getting the longest battery charge--an extended-life battery or an external laptop battery? PC World's Darren Gladstone recommends internal extended-life batteries, as they're easier to carry and harder to lose.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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