Monday, April 12, 2010

Google turns up the heat on Office with collaboration tweaks

Google is making a number of changes to its Google Docs offerings to make them even more attractive for those looking to make the switch from Microsoft's Office. Google's editors for documents, spreadsheets, and drawings are getting even more realtime collaboration attributes—including character-by-character editing by multiple users. Unfortunately, Google Docs is also losing a couple features, but Google believes these changes will help take it to the next level when it comes to challenging Microsoft.

Google Docs has always had easier-to-use collaboration features than much of what Microsoft has to offer. Docs has been particularly useful for individuals and small businesses who need to throw together a document quickly with geographically scattered users, but the newest additions allow users to see each others' edits on a per-character basis. This means you can watch what your coworker is typing into a document in almost realtime, and up to 50 users can be connected to a document at a time.

On top of that, Google's word processor now sports more Office-like features, such as spellcheck while you type and a ruler across the top for easier margin alignment. Spreadsheets has gained auto-complete and drag-and-drop columns, as well as an editing bar for formulas. And in Drawings, users can copy and paste their creations into other Google docs or export to standard image formats in either raster or vector (SVG) options.

Color labels in all of these Web apps show which user is entering what and where, so there's never a question as to who added certain sections.

Not all the news about Google Docs is good, though. Thanks to Google's discontinuation of Gears, those who rely on offline access to Google Docs will lose that ability as of May 3, 2010. Google is careful to mention that this doesn't affect offline access to Google Calendar or Gmail, and says the company is "working to support an improved offline access option in the future."

These changes come on the heels of Google's acquisition of DocVerse, a company that allowed Microsoft Office users to edit their documents collaboratively on the Web—Google is undoubtedly planning to integrate DocVerse's features into Google Docs. Soon after that deal closed, Google also introduced an Exchange migration tool for businesses looking to ditch Microsoft's e-mail technology in favor of Google Apps.

There are other ways for Office users to collaborate online—SharePoint is a popular solution among businesses, for example—but the functionality is still quite different from what's offered through Google Docs. And, of course, Google emphasizes that all these changes are part of Google Apps for no extra cost, while Office is $499 per user (before discounts).

The changes may not appeal to serious Office users, but it's clear that Google has decided to turn up the heat on Microsoft's dominance among casual users and small businesses.

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