More and more we’re seeing our technical writing clients using Google Docs as their collaborative platform for technical documentation, so we thought we’d share a few thoughts on this technology.
In case you’re not familiar with Google Docs, basically what Google has done is take your traditional “office suite” of applications and turned them into software as a service (SAAS). To put it simply, they’ve built (or rather acquired) an online “MS Office‑like” suite of tools which allows you to create and share documentation online using a web browser.
There are a number of benefits to this approach over the traditional native applications (e.g. MS Office) that you install on your PC. To begin with, the tools are platform agnostic meaning that anyone with a web browser and internet access can use them. In fact the service has also been expanded to work on other devices like smart phones as well. Similarly the data (i.e. your documents) are stored on the “cloud” which means that you can access them on any PC which has an internet connection, thus eliminating the need to store them on your PC. And as a bonus this means that your data is always backed up.
Perhaps the greatest benefit though is the ability to collaborate on the same document at the same time. What’s really cool is that two or more users can work on a document and literally see each other’s changes as they are happening in near real time. Such collaboration has always been a major limitation in MS Office, since the tool suite binds you to monolithic binary files which can only be edited by one person at a time.
While Google Docs doesn’t support all of the advanced features that you might find in a suite like MS Excel or Word, it does offer the features that users utilize the most. In fact users of MS Office have often criticised Microsoft for introducing too many new features which are never used while decreasing the suite’s usability, so it’s nice to see Google recognizing that the focus should be on the most commonly used core features.
But every technology also has its flaws. The first issue is that the tool is really not suited for high quality print output. Rather its strength lies in facilitating collaboration which makes it perfect for informal documents, but a poor choice for desktop publishing or technical documentation.
Another issue is around security. While Google Docs is likely to be very secure, the bottom line is that you’re storing data on some remote server using a web‑based service. So that configuration inherently brings potential security risks, though they are small.
And since the tool is web‑based, this means that you must be online to access your data. So you can forget about productivity during a power outage or when you’re in an area where an internet connection is not available. Some may argue that this is a non‑issue in this day and age, but let’s face it – the Internet is simply not always 100% accessible.
A bigger and more general problem is that SAAS offerings are usually very slow and clunky compared to their native application counterparts and Google Docs is no exception. The suite tends to lag a lot and overall responsiveness is very poor even with a fast internet connection. In fact SAAS services of today are reminiscent of the old 486 days where applications like word processors and graphics apps were simply too complex for the PC’s at the time to handle. Despite the speed of the Internet today, it seems that SAAS offerings are going through a similar phase.
The final issue is that the service requires you to sign up. This means that to get up and running you need to sort through and create a free Google account which can be a cumbersome process and adds yet another email account to keep track of. Unlike a native application like Word where you just run the application and start working, Google Docs requires an initial sign up as well as a sign‑in process that must be done every time you want to use the service.
Despite the downsides however, Google Docs is still a great tool and its primary benefit is that it facilitates collaboration. So next time you need to collaborate on some informal documents and don’t want to pass around monolithic Office files, be sure to check out Google Docs.