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I recently purchased yet another laptop. My old, very heavy 17" laptop was found to be more than suitable by my assistant, who had to juggle computer use with another member of staff prior to the acquisition of my new machine. The new laptop came with a coupon for the latest version of Microsoft Office but despite the discount the price tag for the software, it was still a lot of money. This led me to explore alternatives to enriching Bill Gates et al yet another time.

Google not too long ago added well over a dozen on-line and downloadable applications to its now famous searching features. It took me a while, but at last an investigation into the Google "Documents" feature astounded me. That's high praise from someone who's enjoyed the luxury of costly yet high-performance Microsoft Office applications. Even more astounding is that this robust collection of applications is available free to anyone willing to store one's documents on Google's server. If one is dubious that Google will look at your documents and perhaps engage in the distasteful practice of using your data for market research purposes, a web-based system like this is not for you.

The only other concern about web-based systems like this would be loss of documents due to bugs in Google's system. It's easy enough, however, to save Google-created documents to one's own computer. From there, backup and double backup possibilities are endless.
 

The Document Creation Arena

The author having no real experience with anything but Microsoft products in the past, this article and its comparisons will be somewhat myopic. There are other suites of the usual culprits (word processor, spreadsheet, and perhaps an image processor and/or a presentation creator) available. There are also individual, competitive products. All cost less (some far less) than the Microsoft equivalents and are fine for users who don't demand the feature-packed Microsoft products. Corel's WordPerfect gave Microsoft Word a run for its money. There are still die-hard Lotus 1-2-3 fans who prefer the spreadsheet program to Microsoft's Excel. Lotus is no longer its own entity, having been bought by IBM some time ago.

An organization called OpenOffice.org has taken an office application suite from Sun Microsystems and made it open-source freeware. Another article will be dedicated to the comparison of OpenOffice to Microsoft's offerings. It is certainly as economical a choice for someone who needs office applications as is the free Google product. (OpenOffice does ask for donations of money, opinions and improvements in the same way all freeware organizations do.)
 

Chevrolet or Cadillac?

Ever get into a rental car and spend a half an hour just figuring out how to get going? Ever fall prey to the Euro-style electric window switches located on the console between front seats? (Yes, it's true, a friend who has a car equipped like that drove in silence with a Cheshire cat-like grin watching me with lit cigarette in my mouth search all over the doors, even under the handles, looking for the damned switch).

The best analogy of the Google/Microsoft difference is like comparing cars. Any car in working order can get one from point A to point B. Google's suite lacks the seemingly infinite bells and whistles Microsoft's product offers. Google, however, has created a GUI that's so intuitive and simple I wondered why they weren't getting sued by Microsoft, so similar were the icons, arrangement of features and methods of getting things done.

A simple spreadsheet (a detailed invoice, in this case) created by Google docs worked fine but for the fact that it did not paste well into email programs (Yahoo and Gmail). The learning curve for Google's spreadsheet utility is not steep at all, and where questions might arise (for example, the formatting of numbers and decimal places), large windows displaying "most used" options with branches to other options appear. I missed nothing about the Microsoft program Excel, but for the fact that one cannot see formulae in a data entry line by merely rolling over a cell; one must double-click the cell and do one's editing therein.

The lack of a ruler gave this typist the creeps, but once again, it's a matter of getting used to the limited choices afforded users of Google's software. The word processor has a word counter, very handy for writers working within limitations. Those who'd use a simple plain text editor to get the business of writing done don't have the luxury of a word counter (nor a spell-checker). This makes Google's program great for those who don't want to grapple with the learning curve and "auto-formatting" features contained in the Microsoft product.

I'm a huge proponent of paperless offices. The built-in Acrobat converter is a cool feature that used to have to be purchased separately when buying Microsoft products. Now, however, I believe the "professional" version of Microsoft Office has a facility for creating the very handy .PDF document files.
 

It's Nice To Share

Authors of Google documents can choose to assign a URL to each document, allowing others to view, comment on, or even, if the creator wishes, edit the document in question. To Google's credit, the author can instruct the document to be saved so as to be editable without having to log into Google using a username and password. Those interested in more security shouldn't have a big problem, however, because more and more people are signing up for Google's Gmail email client all the time and therefore can use their information for Gmail to get into Google Documents.

Also to Google's credit, the on-line nature of the documents makes collaboration with those not on your office network or VPN a lot more easy than emailing Microsoft documents all over the place and potentially having two different versions of the same document created at the same time. Google's HELP facility gently promotes a "team" or professional version of the system for offices.

With regard to compatibility, it's amazing how many formats one may import into Google Documents, including the popular Microsoft formats. Size limitations are generous, each document maxes out at 500 kilobytes, with allowance for additional 2 megabyte embedded images. You're allowed to store up to 5,000 documents and/or presentations and 5,000 images. Spreadsheets have a limit of 1,000; but storage space is unlimited. However, if you want to create a sheet with more than 200,000 cells in it, you're just out of luck — unless you purchase extra storage space, which is available at nominal cost to power users. A concern of mine was that presentations are limited to 10 MB. My Powerpoint presentations have often exceeded a gigabyte including images, music and animation. Again, space may be purchased.
 

Conclusion

There will certainly be those who'll absolutely refuse to entrust their documents to storage on a distant server, more specifically a server owned by a company that's rapidly growing and is already going from humble, model-of-simplicity innovator to despised "big corporation" status the same way Microsoft did. Despite Google's growth, their corporate culture, at least as reflected in their online help documents, product documentation and sales efforts, is mellow and easy to digest. Should Google step over the line the way Microsoft did many years ago, they'll be slitting their own throats marketing-wise.

The pessimist in me likens all of the great free goodies available from Google to the generous samples of illicit substances that a drug dealer doles out free of charge to a potential new customer. I can't help but think that once we've grown to rely on the simplicity, ease of use and ease of collaboration of Google Documents, they'll pull the rug out from under us and start charging for it. Who knows? Perhaps they'll just slide in little plain-text ads just like they do when one is using their search engine, or visiting the homepage of a website that's content-rich and needs a way to pay for bandwidth encumbered by guest users.

By example: I don't recall whether they still do it or not, but MSN started charging for their organized chatrooms after they'd garnered a few million users. I had occasionally visited a very friendly group that was populated by a core bunch of bright, happy folks. I did not ante up even the token amount required to continue membership, however. I don't know how many members of that group paid to continue their participation.

On the other side of the coin, even if the cost of, let's say, a version of Google documents that's revved-up a bit were half that of the Microsoft products, I'd bite. Why? Because at this time I don't think Google's going to charge for something that's not immensely popular. They're a trustworthy organization. There's been none of the controversy about exploitation of personal information that, for example, has recently plagued Facebook.

My final thought is that the shareability of Google Documents makes the concept perfect, for example, for an E2 mentor to scan new users' work (with all due respect to E2's new multiple scratchpad feature).

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