First, it was Google Mail, or Gmail. It all began with an invitation from someone I barely knew, and at first I used Gmail very sparingly. The ads werent the culprit—I hardly even notice them (sorry, advertisers), except when they creep me out with their sometimes uncanny relevance to the e-mail Im reading. No, it was more the interface that kept me from using the platform and relying instead on my corporate e-mail.
I think the Gmail interface is unintuitive. I dont like where Reply and Forward are, and I think its cumbersome to read a long thread. But as more and more of my personal life became hooked into e-mail (theres not a soccer coach around, for example, who wouldnt rather send a mass e-mail than call 15 players families), I wanted an account separate from work. Gmail was as good as anything. (Hows that for being decisive?)
But then along came Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
For years, we at eWEEK Labs used an Excel spreadsheet to organize our weekly (and now daily) lineup of reviews, tech analyses, columns and other content. Weve tried fancier platforms over time, including open-source portal apps with workflow built in, but the simple spreadsheet just seemed to work best. The problem was that it wasnt on the network, and any changes I made to the document were unknown to the Labs analysts unless I sent out a revised version through e-mail. (I know, I know—weve made the comparison to the shoemakers children ourselves.)
When Google Docs and Spreadsheets came along, we toyed with the idea of using the spreadsheet functionality for our Labs schedule, but we were a little bit skittish. Would our super-secret Labs schedule be safe hosted by Google? In short order, however, we decided that the benefits would be worth whatever small risk there was.
And the benefits have been big. The document is live, of course, so anyone with read or write access and an Internet-connected system can see the most recent changes. At first, I was the only collaborator, and everyone else was a viewer, but Ive recently made everyone in the Labs a collaborator, in the hopes of making the system even more dynamic.
Weve also started to use the platform for what we call "Labs-all" projects.
For example, when we set out to develop an online slide show naming the products that turned each of us on to technology, I set up a shared Google doc, invited all of the analysts as collaborators, and sat back and watched as the document was populated.
Thats a far sight better than our old method of putting that kind of thing together: In the past, I would send out an e-mail saying, "Please send me your pick for the product that turned you onto technology." Well, you know how e-mail threads go—they twist, turn and get forgotten in pretty short order. And goodness knows that more e-mail is just what we dont need around here.
However, the Google Docs and Spreadsheets platform has not been without problems. The biggest? I get disconnected at least once a day. Google is very nice about it, saying, "Oops, you seem to have been disconnected," or something like that, but its a real pain. For whatever reason, Ive yet to be able to reconnect by simply pushing the Discard Changes and Reload button. I always have to close out and go back into the document from the Google Docs and Spreadsheets landing page. (And dont get me started on the number of windows spawned by a busy day with Google Docs and Spreadsheets.)
Availability—or lack thereof—is becoming more of an issue. An increasing number of eWEEK documents are being created and stored in Google Docs and Spreadsheets as more and more people realize the benefits of shared, online docs. And weve discovered that Gmail—with its gigabytes of storage—is a handy way to deliver the many screenshots required for online slide shows and a nice way around our Outlook mailbox storage limits. But on at least two memorable days, several of us were at a relative standstill because we could get to our Google-hosted docs and mail only sporadically.
As far as how the Google apps compare with Microsoft Offices? My colleague Jason Brooks is right in saying that most of us use only a fraction of the features available in any Microsoft Office app and that Google has a chance to establish a new and more realistic base line.
But, on the other hand, most people are familiar with Microsoft Office apps—not just in the workplace but at home and in schools. Come to think of it, most people grow up using Office. And, compared with Office apps, the Google apps, to me, are more barren than they are simple. As with Gmail, I find the Google apps interfaces unintuitive. It takes me much longer to format a Google spreadsheet, for example, than it does to format an Excel spreadsheet. (Can someone tell me if there is an easy way to add rows to a Google spreadsheet?) I may not be a puppy, but Im not an old dog yet.
All that said, however, Googles apps have made my and my colleagues work lives easier overall. Well continue to use the platform, and I expect to see it streamlined, finessed and hardened over time, especially as organizations adopt Google Apps Premier and put in their 2 cents.
I dont expect that Google Apps Premier will displace Office, but I do think it has a good chance of eating away at Microsofts market share. Its happened gradually, and almost without my knowing it, but I spend a good amount of my workday now engaged with some Google app or another. Which is perhaps just how Google planned it.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Deb Donston can be reached at email@example.com.