Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tossing Microsoft Office Just Keeps Getting Easier

Slowly, but surely, all of my data is moving into the cloud. In fact, about ninety percent of my time on the computer is spent in a web browser, whether it be Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or even this blog, nothing is done offline anymore (and by offline, I mean not on the Internet, rather than the recent de facto definition of offline as off the computer). However, the one thing that most people find most difficult to move online is traditional word and spreadsheet processing. Microsoft Office is a powerful program resulting from years of dedicated programming, and as much as many people hate Microsoft, anybody who says Office is a bad program does not know what they are talking about. Recently, however, Google made it just a little bit (actually, a lot) easier to make this move away from Microsoft Office or OpenOffice (I'm the latter, go Ubuntu!). The new version of Google Docs includes features that make the online word processing experience much more like your traditional word document.

As with many things in Google, the features are in beta, so you need to manually enabled them. For the new Spreadsheets, simply open a spreadsheet in Google Docs and click the New Version link in the top-right corner. With documents, it's a bit trickier. You must go into your Google Docs settings under the Editing tab to enable the new version, and even then, you will only see the changes in documents that you create after applying the setting. Hopefully, Google will implement some type of converter so old documents that do not use the new version can be converted over. The new features are useful enough to risk my entire cloud over.

The big thing Google put in shows up in the new Google Documents: rulers and tab stops. Yes, for the first time ever, you can actually implement tab stops and proper indentation in your Google document. This feature has probably been the most missed feature in Google's online word processing program, and the lack of this feature has driven me crazy over the years. With a ruler and tab stops, documents can be formatted more efficiently, and, most importantly of all, first-line indent! Anyway, moving on. The next ingenious improvement you'll find is that comments, which were previously inserted inline within the document (really bothersome), have now been moved to the side of the document, where they belong. Furthermore, line spacing can be done from within the document, rather than having to apply one line spacing for the entire document from Document settings, and bullets and numbering now has more options. The last feature of importance in the new Google Documents is real-time collaboration. Much like in Google Wave, while collaborators work on the same document as you, the text will update as the other person types.

Google Spreadsheet also incorporates the new real-time collaboration, but it's other improvements are not as exciting as the documents. The new version of spreadsheets now have a formula bar at the top of the sheet, so you can type either in the cell directly or in the formula bar, much like in traditional spreadsheet programs. Google also added auto-completion, the ability to move columns, and a much faster interface to go along with everything, so now even the largest spreadsheets load with speed.

The recent improvements to Google Docs mean a lot to the world of cloud computing, because Google's online Word and Excel now have the ability to rival most of the basic features in their Microsoft counterparts. In fact, I would bet that more than three-quarters, if not more, of the most used features in Microsoft Office or OpenOffice have already been implemented in Google Docs. Of course, when it comes to specialty documents, either a flyer or other content that requires more features, desktop applications are still the only way to go. This new release, though, shows that online productivity services have much potential, and Google is not going to let that potential go easily. As for me, until Google Docs can properly upload my OpenOffice documents, I'm stranded on my computer, with only Dropbox to sympathize with my sorrows, but I expect more improvements to come, and I know I will eventually have a post dedicated to the day when I finish my move to the cloud.

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