Google Docs provides small and medium businesses with an affordable, Web-based office productivity platform. Aside from giving individual users the ability to create, store, and work with documents from anywhere in the world with a live Internet connection, Google Docs enables teams, peers, and partners to collaborate online in real-time on the same file.
With the recent launch of Microsoft Office 2010, and the accompanying Office Web Apps, Microsoft now lets you work with documents in the cloud. But, while Microsoft may be the dominant provider of office productivity software, Google has the advantage when it comes to working with and collaborating on documents in the cloud.
Here is a brief overview of Google Docs applications, and their recently updated, real-time collaboration features.
Once someone creates a document, other users granted access can view and edit it as well. You can share a document with up to 200 individuals, and as many as 50 users can simultaneously work on the same document. If two users are editing the same document, a box at the top of the screen will list the current collaborators.
Users viewing or working with the document will be able to see all edits and additions in real-time as they are typed. Obviously, the potential exists for two collaborators to edit the exact same text at the same time. Google closely monitors the timestamp of each edit to apply it in the appropriate order.
Thankfully, Google also provides chatting, so users can send instant messages while collaborating in real-time. Click on the arrow to the right of the names at the top of the screen to open a pane to chat with other users currently editing the same document. Chatting allows collaborators to coordinate effort and prevent conflicts, and it provides a means of instant feedback.
As with Docs, you can share a spreadsheet file with up to 200 users, and as many as 50 can simultaneously edit. The names of active collaborators appear at the top of the screen, and clicking an arrow unveils a pane for real-time chatting.
A small colored square next to each name represents the designated color for that user. Whatever cell that person is currently focused on or editing appears framed by that user's assigned color--making it easy to identify who is editing which cell at any given moment.
Files in Presentations, a slideshow app similar to PowerPoint, also can be shared with up to 200 different users, but is limited to ten simultaneous editors. Other functions--such as displays of changes in real-time, and an arrow next to online collaborators' names that opens a chatting window--are the same as in the other applications.
Google Drawings is the newcomer to the Google Docs lineup, providing features similar to those in Microsoft Visio. Drawings can have up to 50 simultaneous collaborators working on the same file, and it offers chatting.
However, Drawings has a slightly different definition of "real-time", as online collaborators only see each others' completed changes. If someone adds a new shape, or edits shapes or lines within the shared drawing, those changes don't appear to other users as they are being drawn. If the action is canceled prior to completion, none of the other editors will ever see it.
Google Docs is nowhere near as robust and feature-rich as Microsoft Office for the desktop, but many consider Office to be bloated with unnecessary features. For simple documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings, Google Docs is more than sufficient. And, for real-time online collaboration, Google sets the bar.