Google March 16 turned its comments feature in Google Docs into a moderated social-conversation tool, adding ownership and editing privileges, timestamps and profile pictures for each comment.
Google semi-socialized its Docs document, spreadsheet and presentation applications by moving comments to the sidebar and letting people reply to them in its major Docs upgrade last April.
For Google, the new Docs discussions provide a sorely needed social element missing from Docs, which as part of its upgrade received faster document, drawing and spreadsheet editors in Docs.
Still, the programs communication tools felt dated compared with upstart collaboration tools from Yammer, Socialcast and Socialtext, all of which offered status updates, profile pictures and easy access to comment threads.
The new Docs discussion capabilities make it easier for users to resolve comments so they can be removed from the document and be viewed later by clicking the discussions button at the top of any document.
"We know you can't watch all of your important documents all day to see if there are any suggestions, which is why we've integrated comments with your in-box to facilitate more rapid and responsive communication," explained Google software engineer Nick Cooper in a blog post, which offers screenshots and a video demo of the improvements.
For example, users can now add someone to a discussion with an @mention. Any user mentioned in this manner will receive a notification e-mail containing the text of the comment, similar to the way users on Twitter are alerted to @mentions.
When the user receives an e-mail in his in-box with the question or comment, he can reply to the e-mail or click through to open the document. The reply will show up in the document as soon as the e-mail is sent.
Users who wish not to be bothered may also turn off e-mail notifications for a document by selecting Mute updates from a comment at the bottom of any e-mail or select discussion notification settings from the Discussions drop down.
Cooper said Google employees have been testing the discussion-oriented comments for several months and found that it greatly improves "the feedback cycle" by making it shorter and getting more people involved.
Discussions will be available over the next few days to all users with personal Google Accounts and Google Apps customers on the Rapid Release track.
However, the new comments capabilities are only available in new documents, so users must create a new document.
When eWEEK mentioned to Google that the new comments seemed to be a bid to better socialize Docs in the wake of comparable features from collaboration software rivals Yammer, Socialcast and Salesforce.com, Scott Johnston, group product manager for Google Docs and Google Sites, told eWEEK:
"Google Docs is designed from the ground up to be a collaborative document creator. The new discussions interface accelerates the collaboration capabilities in Google Docs."
Whether or not the Google Docs team followed in the footsteps of smaller rivals is moot. The company had to make its changes to improve the suite's collaboration feature set.